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Discover the paintings you own – the Public Catalogue

Review of the lecture given by
Mary Rose Rivett-Carnac
on April 26th 2017

Mary Rose works for the charity Art UK whose objective has been to catalogue every oil painting in public ownership.  To achieve this they have surveyed 212,000 paintings by 38,000 artists in 3,000 locations across the United Kingdom.  These paintings were meticulously categorised and photographed and are now on the Art UK website.  Fred Hohler started this project when he enquired as to whether there was a catalogue available.  He became determined to provide the public with the information that he originally sought.

There were 6 groups involved in this project:
1. The funders (£6million)
2. The 3,000 locations (they needed to persuade them to let them in)
3. The researchers (60 people)
4. The photographers who recorded the paintings in situ
5. The editorial staff and copywriters in London (where Mary Rose works)
6. The 38,000 artists

Mary Rose explained the many difficulties faced during their journey, including the lack of data available about the paintings located outside of museums, and working with old and fragile paintings - the oldest work was over 700 years old!  They also had triumphs.  What was thought to be a copy of a Van Dyke, after research turned out to be an original!  This piece of work was in storage but after the information came to light it is now on display.  It transpires that as much as 80% of the government’s art collection is actually available to view by the public.  One of the largest collections is held by the University of Dundee who have 2,000 paintings although not many of them are readily accessible.  Unknown artists have also been included in the catalogue irrespective of the quality of their work.

Art Colleges often give a glimpse of artists'
early work, which personally I find really interesting, e.g. Stanley Spencer’s ‘The Visitation’ painted when he was only 21, part of the University of Glasgow’s collection.  Key collections include that of the University of Hull, which has an international reputation, the Ruth Borchard collection which consists of self-portraits by English artists and the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth which holds the largest collection in Wales.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912)  The Picture Gallery  Towneley Hall Art Gallery & Museum

Every location visited has its own web page and there is also a function on the website called 'Art Detective' which enables the general public to ask questions and give information about artwork on the website.

Although Surrey has no main art gallery, there are a number of local galleries including Watts Galley in Compton and Royal Holloway in Egham which help to make up the 1,500 oil paintings in the Surrey catalogue.

Mary Rose told us some of the more unusual stories to come out of this search including a painting in the Wolverhampton Art Galleries collection, which was found in the coal store folded up separating the coal, and in another location, a football painting by William Wollen was found being used to block up a broken window.

There are also a number of artists catalogued better known for their day job than their paintings.  These include Gertrude Jekyll (garden designer), Sarah Bernhardt (actor), Henry J Wood (conductor), Noel Coward (actor), Dwight Eisenhower (President of the USA), Winston Churchill (Prime Minister) who has 192 paintings catalogued and Catherine Cookson (author).

Claude Monet (1840–1926)  The Church at Vétheuil (1880)  Southampton City Art Gallery

The next project of Art UK is to catalogue 150,000 sculptures and then expand the paintings list to include pastels, watercolours etc.

A wonderfully insightful lecture by Mary Rose and a website which looks to be a very useful tool to those with an interest in artwork in public spaces.  I wish this resource had been available when I was studying and I look forward to seeing the project's further development.

Louise Taylor

Images above reproduced by kind permission of Art UK