The government has taken steps to try and stop a 1762 watercolour of the Niagara Falls from leaving the UK. An East View of the Great Cataract of Niagara, the first eyewitness painting of the landmark, was sold to a foreign buyer in April. It has now been placed under a temporary export bar, in the hope a UK buyer match the £151,800 asking price. Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said the artwork helped demonstrate “Britain’s global role in the 18th century”. It was painted by British military artist Captain Thomas Davies, during one of several tours of duty in North America. “This watercolour painting not only provides us with the first glimpse of Niagara Falls, but it also sheds light on Britain’s achievements in 18th century exploration, military and topographical art,” said Mr Vaizey.

Captain Davies’ painting was the first accurate, on site painting of the landmark straddling the US and Canadian border, which is now one of the most recognisable views in the world. It was also the earliest depiction of Niagara’s ever-present rainbow. A highly-regarded military artist and collector who was trained in landscape painting, Davies completed the work during one of several tours of duty in North America. Until then, much less realistic portrayals of Niagara Falls were created by artists who had not been there, based on a written description by Father Louis Hennepin, the European who discovered the falls in 1678.

Arts Council England said Davies’ painting had a strong association with the UK’s history and national life, and was significant in the study of 18 century exploration, scientific and military endeavour. “Most of his work has already left these shores,” said Christopher Wright, a member of the committee that advises the government on art and objects of cultural interest. “Davies produced three views of Niagara. An East View of the Falls, arguably the most important of the three, is the only one now remaining in this country,” said Wright.

The watercolour previously belonged to late collector Peter Winkworth, who had built an extensive collection of Canadian scenes before his death in 2005. The decision on the watercolour’s export licence application has been deferred until 18 November, but could be extended until February 2016 if a serious buyer is found.