DCMS blog

See the nation’s oil paintings online and help tag them

by

Andrew Ellis

Public Catalogue Foundation Director

Next year will mark the culmination of the Public Catalogue Foundation’s ambitious project to photograph the nation’s entire collection of oil paintings. These paintings are being shown on the BBC website. As Andrew Ellis, the PCF’s Director, explains this project will reveal to the world the UK’s extraordinary art collection.


image of a painting being hung in a large store space

2012 – The finishing point for a monumental art project

Since 2003 a team of researchers and photographers has painstakingly been making a photographic record of what is arguably the finest collection of oil paintings in the world. By the end of 2012 – the year of the London Olympics – we expect to reach our finishing line, an online catalogue of c.200,000 paintings.
As 80% of these paintings are not on show, our work has taken us to countless museum storerooms across the country as well as university common rooms, hospital waiting rooms, nuclear bunkers, lighthouses and fire stations.
By the end of next year we will have worked with around 3,000 collections from Stromness to the Scilly Isles. The largest of these is the National Trust with over 12,000 oil paintings while at the other end of the scale Doncaster Magistrates’ Court holds just one painting. In between lie famous collections such as Tate and the National Gallery and a massive core of unsung local authority museums.

image of art store roomThe PCF project is highlighting the astonishing wealth of our regional collections. Go to Belfast to see American Abstract Expressionists and to Cardiff to see French Impressionists. Travel to Orkney to see a fine collection of Alfred Wallis and to the University of Essex to see modern Latin American paintings. And we must not forget London, where photography is currently underway. In total over 30,000 paintings are held in the capital. Camden alone has 4,000 oil paintings within the borough. Lots of surprises are being thrown up such as a Veronese in a central London hospital and Sickerts in an Islington library.

A great collection needs a great showcase. That’s why we approached the BBC and asked it to put the PCF’s project online. The BBC agreed.

Over the last couple of years, the BBC and PCF teams have been working closely to put the whole national collection online. The Your Paintings website allows you to choose your favourite artist and sit back to watch a slide show of their works from across the country. Alternatively you can watch related BBC TV archive or hear Frank Skinner telling you about his favourite Annunciations. Finally, if you know something about a specific painting (there are many without sitter names or identified topography) you can tell us what you know through the Art Detective feature. As paintings are uploaded, new features and functions will be added to the site.
A key objective of the project is to promote the participating collections. Where it is possible we encourage users to visit the collections and see the paintings for real.

Art meets astrophysics. Can you help?

A big challenge has been to identify and log what is in each painting so that the public can search Your Paintings for subjects such as the First World War, racing cars or fashion in Regency Bath. How do you do that for 200,000 paintings?
Our solution lay in the stars. With the help of crowd-sourcing technology pioneered by the Astrophysics Department at Oxford University to classify galaxies and our art historian partners at Glasgow University, the PCF developed Your Paintings Tagger, a crowd-sourcing tool that lets you, along with thousands others, tag the nation’s oil paintings online. Please have a go!
tagging is easy screen grab

PCF Prints raising revenues for participating collections

To date the PCF’s main source of funding (over 80%) has been private sector grants and donations. Going forward, the PCF does not want to be dependent on trust or state funding. We have therefore set up PCF Prints – a Print-on-Demand service – with the Bridgeman Art Library to allow the collections to exploit commercially the painting photographs we have taken and given to them for free. Our share of this income stream will allow the PCF to maintain the database of painting information and improve this over time.


Visit the PCF website to find out more about their work.


Store room image (page top) © Andy Johnson.
Workshop image (second image) © Dan Brown.

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