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The Oil Paintings Project & Your Paintings

Reading Museum Service

Reading Museum Service © Andy Johnson

The UK's Oil Painting Collection

The United Kingdom holds in its galleries and civic buildings arguably the greatest publicly owned collection of oil paintings in the world. Over 210,000 publicly owned oil paintings are held in institutions ranging from museums large and small to town halls, universities, hospitals and even fire stations.

However, four in five of these paintings are not on view. Whilst many galleries make strenuous efforts to display their collections, many paintings across the country are held in storage, usually because there are insufficient funds and space to show them. Furthermore, very few galleries have created a complete photographic record of their paintings, let alone a comprehensive illustrated catalogue of their collections. In short, what is publicly owned is not publicly accessible. 

The PCF's Work

Over the past ten years the PCF has been photographing these paintings and collating information about each painting. In doing this it has been working closely with collections up and down the country. It completed the digitisation programme in late 2012, by which point it had recorded over 210,000 paintings from over 3,000 collections.

Putting the Project Online

When the PCF launched in 2003, its main focus was to publish a series of hard copy catalogues. A few years later its focus turned to publishing online. Online access allows users to search paintings by various criteria and view larger images, whilst collections will be able to update their painting records. Most importantly, it gives the PCF’s work a much larger and wider audience.

To achieve this aim, the PCF entered into a partnership with the BBC to build the Your Paintings website which was launched in June 2011. Together the two organisations are radically improving the public’s awareness of the oil paintings they own but, in most cases, cannot see. The project should be of enormous benefit and inspiration to students of art and to members of the general public with an interest in art. It will also provide a major source of organised material for scholarly research into art history. Find out more about the online project here.

How we Catalogued
Researchers Across the Country

At the heart of the project in each county was the PCF's researcher or County Coordinator. This person researched the whereabouts of paintings, liaised with the people in charge of the collections and gathered the catalogue information for each painting. In a number of counties, the County Coordinator was aided by NADFAS Heritage Volunteers who brought extensive local knowledge.

Researching the paintings required painstaking detective work. Much information on the location and content of galleries could be found in the Museums and Galleries Yearbook and on the Internet. However, it was only through the generous guidance of local government and museum authorities that the PCF could trace the art that hangs in spaces not normally accessible to the public. Thereafter, it was down to simple legwork: visiting town halls, council offices, fire stations, hospitals, law courts and elsewhere, to ensure the cataloguing work was comprehensive.

Working Closely with the Collections

Museums and other institutions worked closely with the PCF's staff to arrange suitable times for paintings to be photographed and share the information that they possess. 

Photography

Photographing oil paintings in colour to a good standard is not simple. Whilst the PCF would have like to photograph paintings in situ, in many cases this was not practical. Many paintings are above eye level, hanging on staircases or in tight spaces, or simply stacked in storerooms. This meant that in some cases the PCF needed to use imaginative methods of shooting photographs, or, with the guardian's approval, move the paintings to temporary photographic studios nearby. The paintings were photographed glazed and framed.

What we Catalogued
Oil Paintings are the Project's Principal Focus

The principal focus of this project is oil paintings. However, tempera, acrylic and mixed media, where one of these media is the main constituent, are also included. Paintings on all forms of support (e.g. canvas, panel etc.) are included as long as the support is portable.

The National Collection of Oil Paintings

The national collection of oil paintings has been defined to include works owned by the state and local authorities together with those held in charitable trusts for the benefit of the public. Generally, the PCF’s approach has been to be inclusive in order that the database of paintings is as useful as possible. In total the PCF has catalogued over 210,000 oil paintings in the national collection. These are the work of approaching 40,000 artists.

Whilst local authority and national museum collections make up the majority of the institutions represented, paintings held by universities, hospitals, town halls, local libraries and even a lighthouse are included in the project. The project also includes collections held by national organisations such the National Trust, English Heritage, the Government Art Collection and Arts Council England. The largest collection in the project will be the National Trust with 12,500 works. At the other end of the scale many of the institutions hold just a single picture.

Criteria for Inclusion

As long as paintings meet the requirements above, all paintings are included irrespective of their condition and perceived quality. However, painting reproductions can only be included with the agreement of the participating collections and, where appropriate, the relevant copyright owner. Paintings which have been lent to other institutions, whether for short-term exhibition or long-term loan, are listed under the owner collection. In addition, paintings on long-term loan are also included under the borrowing institution when they are likely to remain there for at least another five years from the date of publication of this catalogue.

Keeping the PCF up to date

Now that we have finished the oil paintings digitisation project we have a small team working to keep the PCF Database and the Your Paintings website up to date. Find out more here.