Your Paintings: The secret artworks ordinary people own

Hogarth altar-piece in offices of Bristol and Regions Archaeology Services A Hogarth altar-piece too big to move from this Bristol office

Of the 200,000 paintings owned by British taxpayers, most are in storage, or on walls few see. A new online gallery throws open the vaults so at least digital versions can be seen. Here are five hidden gems in this collection - and a few more familiar works.

There are works by firefighters and by professional artists. By GIs stationed in schools, and by bon vivants daubing paint on canvas. By local landscape painters and by artworld luminaries.

National collection goes online

Your Paintings website
  • The initial batch of 63,000 paintings is online now
  • Search by artist, title, location or subject matter
  • You can tag each one using a system first applied to classifying galaxies, to sort those with horses, flowers, war scenes, toilets and so on

Many of these publicly owned paintings are in well known galleries and museums, but many are in offices, schools and even fire stations.

And now 63,000 works - the first batch to be digitised - can be seen on the BBC's Your Paintings website, made with the Public Catalogue Foundation.

Once complete in 2012, all 200,000 works will be online.

The most expensive work in the national collection is Picasso's 1925 masterpiece The Three Dancers, says art historian Alastair Sooke. It was bought at auction in 1965, and is currently on display at Tate Modern.

But what are some of the hidden gems in more out of the way places - and what do they tell us about the national collection?

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The fire station

A Quiet Corner in London, by CA Forby, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service Firefighter CA Forby painted what he saw

A Quiet Corner in London, painted in 1940 by a firefighter on duty during the Blitz, now hangs on the walls of Hampshire Fire and Rescue headquarters.

Many firefighters painted works depicting the havoc wreaked by German bombers, so many that an exhibition was mounted in the US to raise money for the families of firefighters injured in World War II.

But this painting is unusual. The canvas used was ripped from the roof of a taxi damaged after being requisitioned to pull water carriers.

The embassy

Thomas Phillips' portrait of Lord Byron The Romantic poet died in Greece

Thomas Phillips' portrait of Lord Byron dressed in traditional Albanian costume hangs in Athens, Greece.

It is part of the 13,500-strong Government Art Collection of paintings and sculptures for display in government buildings and embassies worldwide to promote British art and culture.

This particular work is an example of this cultural diplomacy as it illustrates some of the historical links between Britain and Greece, says a spokesman.

The British poet dubbed "mad, bad and dangerous to know" helped the Greeks in their struggle for independence, and he died there a national hero.

The Government Art Collection purchased the portrait in 1952, and since 1953 it has hung in the main reception room of the British Ambassador's Residence in Athens.

The local museum

John Piper, Interior of Coventry Cathedral, 15 November 1940 ©Herbert Art Gallery It now hangs in a West Midlands gallery

Like A Quiet Corner of London, above, John Piper's Interior of Coventry Cathedral was painted in the immediate aftermath of a bombing raid.

At 7.20pm on 14 November 1940, the first German bombers appeared above Coventry. For the next 12 hours they laid waste to the city below, destroying thousands of buildings and killing hundreds of civilians.

Early the following morning, Piper, an official war artist, painted the aftermath of the attack. And for art historian Dr James Fox, this tiny canvas is the pick of the crop.

"It shows the city's great medieval cathedral in ruins. The roof has collapsed, the windows are smashed, and the rubble is still smouldering.

"It was a metaphor for the entire British nation as it teetered on the brink of annihilation. In the darkest hour of WWII, the public actually saw it as an image of defiance.

"Because in the face of all that terrible destruction, those old English walls are standing firm. And if a building won't give up, neither will the people."

The office

Detail of Hogarth altar-piece in Bristol and Regions Archaeology Services A detail of the 28-ft high altar-piece

An office in a former church - pictured top - can be rather tricky to decorate. All those desks and filing cabinets dwarfed by the high walls and arched windows.

And those who work in the Bristol and Region Archaeology Offices are doubly dwarfed, their desks overlooked by a towering altar-piece - pictured at the top of this page. It's by William Hogarth, an artist more usually associated with satirical sketches and biting social commentaries such as A Rake's Progress and Marriage a la Mode.

It was originally painted for the city's St Mary Redcliffe Church, and then moved to its current location, a church turned church museum.

Once the museum closed, the space was turned into offices. The painting, too big to move or to store, stayed put.

The nuclear bunker

William Wyld's Venice in the bunker under Staffordshire Moorlands District Council offices A bunker provides secure storage space

With the Cold War over, Staffordshire Moorlands District Council has no further need for its nuclear fallout shelter underneath its offices.

So this space - still kitted out with bunks, showers and a communications room - now stores works from the council's art collection, including The Regatta, by American society painter James Whistler, and William Wyld's Venice scenes.

Due to space constraints at its small gallery in the Nicholson Institute, Leek, many works from the council art collection are housed in this disused bunker.

The Your Paintings website is the latest large-scale project to put paintings online.

Earlier this year, Google launched Art Project, which applies its Streetview approach to the world's most famous galleries. This allows users to take a virtual stroll around the likes of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or New York's MoMA, and zoom in for close-ups of a Rembrandt self-portrait or Van Gogh's Starry Night.

And now you can do the same with less famous works.

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