Your Paintings: Artworks from London's public collections go online

Image caption This oil on canvas by Jock McFadyen has only been seen by visitors to a government building in Westminster

Of the 200,000 paintings that belong to the nation and are owned by British taxpayers, most are in storage, or on walls few can see. London's public collections are no exception, but now a new online gallery will throw open the vaults so at least digital versions can be seen.

There are works by firefighters and by established masters. By local landscape lovers and by painters commissioned to record a prominent person or a particular profession.

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

A six-year undertaking has now led to the BBC's Your Paintings website, made with the Public Catalogue Foundation, whereby some 63,000 artworks - the first batch to be digitised - can be seen online.

The resource is, in effect, a democratisation of the nation's art and will be completed in 2012.

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.

Image caption Pissarro's landscape of Acton is housed in Ealing's local history centre

But many of the hidden gems are in more out of the way places, tucked away in various corners of the capital - like Pissarro's 1906 landscape of an autumnal Acton, west London, which is housed in Ealing's local history centre.

Similarly, Jock McFadyen's depiction of a nondescript part of the platform at Aldgate East, above in our illustration, is part of the Government Art Collection.

By way of coincidence, selected works from the collection have recently gone on show for the first time in a public gallery, at the Whitechapel in the East End.

McFadyen's oil painting however can only be seen by visitors to the Department of Transport building in Marsham Street, in Westminster.

Rossetti's striking and much-reproduced 1873 portrait, La Ghirlandata, is another case in point. Part of the art collection of the City of London Corporation, it is currently on display in the Guildhall Art Gallery - for those familiar with the venue that is.

Behind many of the paintings there often lies a story.

Image caption CA Forby's painting is an example of 'live reporting' from the Blitz in London

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 that was requisitioned to pull water carriers.

The artist painted the scene in front of him as if he was reporting live from the Blitz.

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.

Watch a special report, Hidden Paintings of London, on Sunday 26 June at 10.25pm on BBC One.

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