The Public Catalogue Foundation is a registered charity, founded in 2002 to create a photographic record of all the oil paintings in public ownership in the UK. This is the first project of its kind in the world to create a complete online catalogue of every oil painting in a national collection.

The UK holds one of the largest and most diverse collections of paintings in the world. Around 80% of the paintings in public ownership are not on view, whilst the vast majority have never been photographed before. The PCF project now allows everyone to see the full extent of the national collection completely for free on the website “Your Paintings” – In addition to publishing its work online, the PCF is also publishing a series of printed catalogues. Forty-six titles in the Oil Paintings in Public Ownership series have already been published with more than 40 to be released over the next year.

The painstaking research to locate the paintings up and down the country and collate the data has been carried out by over 50 researchers. Over 30 fine art photographers have been employed to take photographs of these paintings over the life of the project. The cataloguing process started with our regional Coordinators, who researched the whereabouts of paintings, liaising with the people in charge of the collections and gathering the catalogue information for each painting. Each Coordinator had his or her own area to work on. This area might be a city, a county or a whole region. For example, our Northern Scotland Coordinator had to cover a huge area that took in the Highlands, the Outer Hebrides, the Orkneys and the Shetland Islands. She often had to travel many miles for just a handful of paintings at a distant location, sometimes, by ferry over rough seas.

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. 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, a swimming bath and an aquarium 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.

The 2,800 collections that took part in the project were located throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as in the crown dependencies of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Our most northerly collection was Unst Heritage Centre in the Shetland Islands, around 1,000 miles north of our most southerly collection, Elizabeth Castle, located on a rocky islet in St Aubin's Bay, Jersey. Our most westerly collection was Fermanagh County Museum, Northern Ireland and our most easterly was Lowestoft Maritime Museum in Suffolk.

Researching the paintings required painstaking detective work. Much information on the location and content of galleries can be found in the Museums Association’s 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 traced the art that hangs in spaces not normally accessible to the public. After that, it has been down to legwork: contacting and visiting town halls, council offices, fire stations, hospitals, law courts and elsewhere, to ensure the cataloguing work is comprehensive. Once painting collections have been located, the Coordinators worked closely with the Museums and other institutions to arrange suitable times for paintings to be photographed and share the information that they hold.

Photographing oil paintings in colour to a good standard is not simple. Whilst the PCF prefer to photograph paintings in situ, in many cases this was not possible. Many paintings were 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 in their frame or even behind glass. Our team of professional photographers was very efficient and could photograph a large number of paintings in one day. We used to base our calculations on photographing around 50-70 paintings per day, but these numbers could go up or down, depending on the accessibility of the works.

In return for allowing us access to their paintings, each collection was given the high-resolution images of their paintings, plus the copyright to those images. This is something we provided for free and which would be out of reach financially for many institutions. Participating in the project often helped people get their collections in order, by auditing the location of their works.

The principal focus of the 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. We don’t include murals or frescoes painted straight onto a wall or ceiling. As long as paintings meet these requirements, all paintings are included irrespective of their condition and perceived quality. The PCF do not make comments on the quality or aesthetics of the paintings, we just provide the data on each work, so that others can use that information for their own research or interest.

Paintings by around 40,000 artists have been catalogued during the project. The PCF’s copyright officers traced rights holders and sought permission to use images of their works online and in the printed books. Paintings are copyrighted to the artist’s estate for 70 years after their death, so for more recent paintings, we have had to do a lot of detective work to locate people.

The results of all of this work can be seen on the “Your Paintings” website, a partnership project between the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation. “Your Paintings” is emerging as a unique learning resource, showing not only photographs and information about each painting but also selected BBC TV archive footage, artist biographies and links to further information. The website was launched at the National Gallery in the summer of 2011. Almost 212,000 of the paintings in the National Collection will be online by the end of 2012. Your Paintings benefits art enthusiasts, students, curators, researchers, tourists and anyone unable to make the journey to the collections.

To help the BBC and PCF identify and catalogue what can be seen in each painting, the public is being invited to ‘tag’ the paintings, so that in due course the paintings can be searchable by subject matter. Tagging is fun, easy and participants don’t need to be an art expert to do it. The “Your Paintings” tagging has been developed with the help of crowd-sourcing technology pioneered by the Astrophysics Department at the University of Oxford to classify galaxies, and art historical input from the University of Glasgow. To have a go at tagging go to:

Moving forward, the PCF is seeking funding to develop the Your Paintings website, adding new learning resources and additional content. We are also setting up the Oil Paintings Expert Network (OPEN), which will provide advice to collections without a specialist in the History of Art on their staff.

We are also applying for funding to catalogue the UK’s national collection of sculpture, starting in 2013. We have estimated that there are up to 75,000 sculptures in UK public collections. Photographing them will provide lots of new challenges, as it’s a great deal more complicated than photographing 2D paintings, with extra handling and lighting considerations, but we hope this project will take us around 3 years.

We have also set up a commercial digitisation services division within the organisation to provide collections help with cataloguing and photography of their objects and with copyright advice. This is a paid service and is available to public and private institutions in the UK and beyond. This cost effective, efficient service builds upon our reputation and our strong links with collections throughout the UK, allowing the PCF to capitalise on collections’ increasing desire to digitise content. To find out more about this service go to:


Cover Image:  Courtesy of the Public Catalogue Foundation, taken at Artemis in Leeds.
PCF Photographer Norman Taylor climbs a ladder to get a better view of a large rolled canvas.