AT MERIDIAN HOUSE, "A Peaceful Moment in Time: 19th Century British Watercolors" demonstrates a people's love for ships, travel and gardens.

Paintings of English cottages fill a room here. Summer's profusion of hollyhocks, daisies and vines surround the thatched-roof dwellings. Beset by the industrial age, Victorians loved them.

As is true of all the works in the show, these were painted with precision; art should mirror nature, social critic John Ruskin was saying at the time. The paintings are almost too accurate. It's easy to see how certain tastes and times could discount them as decorative or sentimental.

In another room, Charles Gilbert Heathcote is being introduced. A gentleman, a barrister, able to trace his ancestors back to before William the Conqueror, Heathcote painted for about 50 years, in his free time. He considered it ungenteel to sell his paintings. They were his journal, snapshots taken on trips. Traveling to more than 22 countries, he recorded his impressions in watercolor rather than on film. His renderings of Scotland, Ireland, France and Algeria, pre-World War I, are almost photographic.

A selection of nautical scenes and landscapes rounds out this exhibit. A restrained, detailed painting of the HMS Ironclad Bellerophon with its sails gently unfurled contrasts with rose-toned watercolors of idealized hillsides in the Lake District.

One watercolor peeks inside a cottage. This painting romanticized rural life, but now it's more a burlesque. In "The Evening Meal," the old husband and wife, their marriage timeworn, sup by the fire. The painter has duly noted every possible item in the cottage, from the family treasures on the mantelpiece to the bread, jam and steak-and-kidney pie on the table. -- Pamela Kessler.

A PEACEFUL MOMENT IN TIME -- At Meridian House through January 6, 1985. Hours: weekdays, 1 to 4; Saturdays (except November 24 and December 8), 1 to 4. Closed Sundays.