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Your Paintings: putting the public’s oil painting collection online

  • Date: 29 January 2013
  • Artform: Museums, Visual arts
  • Area: National
Painting in three panels propped up in cluttered office The Altarpiece of St Mary Redcliffe: The Ascension by William Hogarth being photographed at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF) has completed a 10-year project to digitise and make accessible online the UK's entire collection of publicly-owned oil paintings. The paintings are now available on the Your Paintings website for free alongside BBC TV documentary archive and biographical information for selected artists.

The project received £100,000 from Grants for the arts and Renaissance support, as well as funding from a number of other sources. No other country has put its entire oil painting collection online.  


The UK's national oil painting collection includes some 211,861 paintings across the UK. This collection encompasses paintings not only held by museums but also works in universities, town councils, hospitals and even paintings held in police stations, fire stations and a lighthouse. It also includes the Arts Council Collection.


Photographing the collection

Eighty per cent of the works in the public collection are not on display while the vast majority had never been photographed before. The PCF's Head of Research and Digitisation Katey Goodwin has visited many of the 2,800 collections covered by the photography project. The PCF's most northerly destination was the Unst Heritage Centre on the island of Unst, the northernmost of the Shetland Islands. The most southerly collection was in Elizabeth Castle on a rocky islet in St Aubin's Bay, Jersey just 14 miles west of the coast of France.


Clearing copyright for paintings published online is a challenging but vital part of the PCF's work. The organisation carries out this process themselves to ensure they publish as complete and comprehensive a record of the nation's oil paintings as possible while respecting the rights of copyholders.

Cataloguing through audience tagging

Helping users easily find their way around the 210,000 paintings on the Your Paintings website was an important consideration for the PCF. In the past, only basic data (such as artist names and painting titles) was usually collected when cataloguing works of art. The PCF wanted to make Your Paintings as useful as possible, allowing people to find paintings by subject matter, painting technique, style or even art movement. 

The PCF could not afford to pay experts to systematically catalogue all 210,000 paintings. So, the public has been invited to add keywords or to 'tag' the nation's paintings on the Your Paintings Tagger website. You can hear more about this in our Digital R&D podcast on data and archives.

Marketing the tagging project

Another challenge has been spreading the word about the tagging project. The number of people participating has been lower than expected. So the PCF is encouraging the public to tag paintings in ways that relate to them: for instance, tagging those found in their local area.


The project received funding from the Arts Council and a number of other sources including: The Monument Trust, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and national sponsor Christie's. The majority of funding came from charitable trusts, about 20 per cent was from the public sector, with further donations received from individuals and businesses.

Working in partnership

The PCF has forged strong relationships with a number of institutions for this project. One notable partnership was with the BBC, combining the PCF's content with their web expertise and audience reach. No money exchanges hands in this partnership. The principal academic partner was the University of Glasgow's Art History Department which was recently involved in the Your Paintings Tagger.

The Your Paintings Tagger website was also built with the help of the Citizen Science Alliance (CSA) based at Oxford University's Astrophysics Department. CSA supplies the behind-the-scenes maths which judges the statistical reliability of the information provided by the tagging public.

The entire Your Paintings project would not have been possible without the participation of more than 2,800 paintings collections across the UK.

Outcomes of the project

The PCF has created free online access to the UK's entire national oil painting collection in public ownership.  No other country has put its entire oil painting collection online.  

The number of unique users to the Your Paintings website has increased considerably over the past few months, peaking at 240,000 in October 2012. This is due to increased linking of the site to other parts of the BBC and a general improvement in awareness and coverage in the press of the project.

The PCF have also received anecdotal evidence about Your Paintings driving website traffic to featured collections.

Read more about Public Catalogue Foundation

View the nation's oil paintings on the Your Paintings website

Help tag the paintings on the Your Paintings website

Follow the project on Twitter @Your_Paintings