Main content

Public view: Art UK shares our greatest paintings online

24 February 2016

There’s only one place where you can see virtually every significant painting in Britain. And hundreds of thousands of people visit every month. It’s called Art UK and it’s one of the most astonishing catalogues available to everyone and at no cost. The website, which launched initially as Your Paintings, came about through a partnership between the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation, who undertook the Herculean task of putting over 200,000 of the nation's oil paintings online. WILLIAM COOK looks back at its philanthropic pre-internet origins and marvels at this Great British internet institution, as it undergoes a transformation.

The homepage of the new Art UK website dedicated to showcasing the UK's artwork. Photo credit: John Cairns.

Until about a year ago, I’d never heard of the Your Paintings project, but ever since I discovered it I've been like a kid with a new toy.

If you’re a curator, or an artist, or just another art lover like me, it’s one of the best things on the internet. And from today - with its new name, Art UK, and even greater ambitions - it’s about to get even better.

If you’re a curator, or an artist, or just another art lover like me, it’s one of the best things on the internet

The project was the fruit of a collaboration between the BBC, a charitable organisation called the Public Catalogue Foundation, and many of the nation’s leading art galleries.

The Public Catalogue Foundation was the brainchild of a former diplomat called Dr Fred Hohler.

His initial inspiration was a chance visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. On his way out, through the gift shop, he asked for a catalogue and was told there wasn’t one.

From this frustration sprang his vast philanthropic ambition - to catalogue all the public artworks in the country - and so the PCF (as us arty-farty types tend to call it) was born.

The PCF started out in 2003 as a bulky set of printed catalogues (now running to over 80 volumes).

This was an amazing innovation, but inevitably it was mainly used by art professionals and ardent enthusiasts.

However in 2011 the PCF teamed up with the BBC to launch the Your Paintings project, opening up this precious resource to anyone with access to the internet.

Explore the new website

There are currently over 200,000 paintings to search on the Art UK site.

This website gave the artwork featured a far broader reach. Now over 200,000 artworks by nearly 40,000 artists were freely available online.

The most spectacular rediscovery was Van Dyck’s Portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter, which was located through the Your Paintings site

Soon, the site was attracting over 300,000 visitors (and nearly 2 million page views) per month, boosted by bright initiatives like Art Detective and Masterpieces in Schools.

With virtually all the public oil paintings in Britain now only a click away, curators could find forgotten pictures in the most obscure collections – not only galleries but all sorts of other public bodies, like hospitals and schools.

Most of these institutions can only display a small minority of their artworks, so they often end up not knowing what treasures they've got hidden away.

The most spectacular rediscovery was Van Dyck’s Portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter, which was located through the Your Paintings site by the art historian and BBC Fake or Fortune contributor, Bendor Grosvenor.

It was gathering dust in storage in the Bowes Museum in Teesdale when Grosvenor came across it online.

It was thought to be a copy of a Van Dyck, worth only a few thousand pounds, but Grosvenor thought otherwise, and after restoration Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum confirmed it was a genuine Van Dyck, worth a million.

Found you! The painting rediscovered thanks to the Your Paintings website. Portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter by Anthony van Dyck, Photo credit: Bowes Museum. Art UK.

The man who introduced me to Your Paintings and the work of the PCF was Patrick Elliott, Chief Curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.

There isn't anything like it in any other country. No wonder 40% of visitors to the site are from outside the UK

‘I did a show of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde a year ago, and it took seconds to find about 50 works by both artists,’ Patrick told me.

‘You could spend a day in a top art library and only track down half of them and find images of maybe a third, and they would mainly be in black and white.

‘There was a terrific MacBryde in a hospital collection in Cambridgeshire.There’s a schools educational collection near Leicester which has one of the best collections of British 20th Century art, but without the Your Paintings website you’d probably never know it exists.

'These collections don’t have the funds to create substantial websites, but the PCF does it for them. It saves masses of time, but it also lets you find things you simply couldn't access before.’

It’s not only useful for professionals like Patrick.

Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde exhibition poster, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

If you have a favourite painter - or an artist you want to learn more about - you can view all their publicly owned works on Your Paintings and find out, within a few minutes, where to see them all for real.

Your Paintings just catalogued oil paintings. Art UK will also showcase watercolours, pastels, prints and drawings

There isn't anything like it in any other country. No wonder 40% of visitors to the site are from outside the UK.

However from today, Your Paintings will be no more.

What? Not another BBC cutback? Don’t worry, the PCF’s online presence isn't vanishing.

Rather, it’s being revamped, and relaunched as Art UK with the PCF solidly at the helm.

So what’s the difference? Well, it’ll be much bigger, for a start.

Your Paintings just catalogued oil paintings. Art UK will also showcase watercolours, pastels, prints and drawings.

And if they get the Heritage Lottery funding they’re after, next year it’ll start showing sculpture too.

There will be lots of other features you won’t have seen before: stories behind the paintings from all sorts of celebs – not only artists, but also writers, actors, scientists, even footballers.

One of the most exciting innovations is the link up with other reference libraries: OUP’s Dictionary of National Biography, and Grove Art Online.

‘It’s the sort of project that you’d think, if someone told you about it as a plan, couldn't and wouldn't happen,’ says Patrick Elliott.

‘It’s an unbelievable feat. It’s in the same league as Pevsner’s Buildings of England – a project that ought to be too big to do but somehow, through enormous determination, got done.’

What was Your Paintings?

The Art UK website was launched on 24 February 2016.

Arts highlights on BBC iPlayer