10 things we learned when we digitised the UK’s art collection

The background: Art UK is a charity and the online home for art from every public collection in the United Kingdom.

Art UK is formerly known as the Public Catalogue Foundation, and between 2003 and 2012 it catalogued and photographed over 200,000 oil paintings in public ownership in the UK, from over 3,000 locations. This is — so far — the only project of its kind in the world.

Art UK turns one year old on 24th February and is the culmination of years of painstaking and detailed work — travelling, cataloguing, photographing, researching artists and rights holders… so here are a few things we learned along the way.

Art is everywhere

It’s definitely not just all about giants like the National Gallery or Tate: we’ve got paintings on Art UK from Unst Heritage Centre in the Shetlands and from St Brelade Parish Hall in Jersey (1,606 km apart), from the National Trust’s Florence Court in Enniskillen to the Lowestoft and East Suffolk Maritime Museum in the East of England (834 km apart). This breadth means that — so far — it’s taken 13 years to digitise the nation’s art collection.

And we mean everywhere — public art is found in some strange places

There are all of the places you’d expect — galleries, town halls, civic buildings, universities, museums. But we’ve also catalogued paintings from a lighthouse, swimming baths, an aquarium — and even a nuclear bunker in Staffordshire, converted into a council storeroom post-Cold War.

There is some amazing art to be seen across the UK…

…but a lot of it is usually found in storage. Around 80 per cent of the paintings in public ownership are not on view, and the majority had never been photographed before the beginning of this project. On Art UK you’re able to see all of the paintings that aren’t currently hanging up.

Tempera is not the same as tempura

‘Tempera’ is: ‘a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium (usually a glutinous material such as egg yolk or some other size).’

‘Tempura’ is a delicious method of battering and deep-frying food, and isn’t generally recommended with works of art.

You’re welcome.

Museums aren’t just home to paintings

Along the way we’ve come across some furry friends. Prolific cat Oswald Clingan-Smith hangs out at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum, while Jock VI is cat-in-charge at Chartwell.

Manchester Art Gallery keeps bees on the roof, and the Stirling Smith also used to be home to a resident cow — though Hamish sadly passed away in 2014.

Art enthusiasts could be the next Sherlock Holmes

As well as cataloguing paintings, Art UK launched the Art Detective website in 2014, where art enthusiasts can take part in discussions about paintings where details are missing. Since 2014, Art Detectives have discovered:

· What was happening in the mysterious painting The Discussion, after the artist’s daughters got in touch with information

· Who the unknown First World War soldier was in an anonymous painting — and then after the BBC picked up the story, it was further revealed that the artist was his mother

· That this painting may well have been a rare work of Dutch artist Johannes Moreelse, prompting further investigation

· And one piece of art only showed the back of a male nude — but even so was successfully attributed to an artist.

Searching art by subject means amazing curation

Forget paintings arranged neatly in a gallery by artist, date or style: browsing around on Art UK gives you a truly unique curatorial experience. Try searching for ‘donkey’, ‘ghost’, ‘Queen Elizabeth II’, ‘storm’ — or just about anything you can think of — and you’ll be amazed at the array of results.

You really don’t have to be an art buff to enjoy it

What makes Art UK so glorious is being able to see a Rembrandt or a van Gogh sitting there right next to paintings by amateur artists. You can linger and learn more about the stuff you’re interested in and skip over the stuff you don’t like.

‘Kitchen sink’ is an art movement

In the 1950s and 1960s, a group of artists started to focus on depicting the ordinary, domestic world around them — hence the name ‘kitchen sink’. The artists associated with this movement include Jack Smith, John Randall Bratby, Derrick Greaves and Edward Middleditch.

We’ve only just begun

We’re still adding new collections, beginning to add watercolours to the oil paintings, and thinking of ways to improve the site to make it ever-easier to access the nation’s art. We’re now looking to digitise the nation’s public sculptures (subject to funding) — a more challenging task still, given that it’ll be in 3D — but one that we’re willing to rise to.

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