Every oil painting in public ownership is now available online. The Public Catalogue Foundation and the BBC have digitised 211,861 works, collaborating with more than 3,000 venues across the UK.Most of the paintings – added irrespective of their physical quality and condition – are not currently on public display, while many have never been photographed.
“No country has ever embarked on such a monumental project to showcase its entire oil painting collection online,” said Andrew Ellis, the Foundation’s Director.
“Working with collections all over the land, this project reveals to the world the UK’s extraordinary holding of oil paintings.
“Anyone with Internet access, anywhere in the world, can now see them all, completely for free.”
An initial photographic record of the combined works began in 2003, but the project, Your Paintings, has grown rapidly during the past 18 months: less than a third of the paintings were added when the BBC launched a dedicated website in June 2011.
“We are only just beginning to see the potential of what it means to make this national treasure accessible,” observed Mark Bell, the BBC Commissioning Editor for the Arts, calling the achievement “special and unique”.
“Your Paintings is the story of the country in pictures, but it is the individual discoveries, new attributions and connections that are most exciting– it will be wonderful to see our understanding of the collection deepen as increasing numbers of people explore and engage with it.”
That engagement could come through adding Facebook-style “tags” to the paintings, allowing other users to find their favourite paintings of figures including enigmatic footballer Eric Cantona and actor Sean Connery, portrayed as a life model 60 years ago.
The statistics count 37,000 artists, with almost 400 by Joshua Reynolds, 348 by Turner, 281 by Gainsborough and 189 by Stanley Spencer, as well as more surprising additions from Noel Coward and Derek Jarman and around 30,000 mystery-shrouded anonymous works.
Of the contributing institutions, The National Trust leads with more than 12,500 paintings, followed by Tate, Glasgow Museums, the National Maritime Museum and National Galleries Scotland.
“We have uploaded over 2,200 of our oil paintings to the site,” said Martin Grimes, the Web Manager at Manchester City Art Gallery.
“We are really proud to be part of the project. It’s the culmination of over two years work to photograph and document them, so for the first time they can been seen in one place.
“Being part of a national collection also creates a new context for these works and means that even familiar paintings can be seen in ways we could never have previously imagined."
The collections are free to access, embellished by the BBC documentary archive and biographies compiled by experts from Oxford University Press.
A “nationwide celebration” of the project will be held in February 2013.