Art UK – The Nation’s Art at Your Fingertips

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In the UK, we’re very lucky to have Art UK, a single organisation that has undertaken the mammoth task of digitising and recording all of the oil paintings in the nation. Yes, every single one of them! We were desperate to find out how it all began. Last week Alice Payne, Head of Content at Art UK told us all about it: 

2003 – The Beginning 

Art UK (formerly The Public Catalogue Foundation) launched initially in book format to make a digitised, photographic record of all oil paintings despite their quality or condition in all public collections. Bridging the gap between the paintings we see in public buildings and galleries to those hidden away. Records were classified by county. Art UK aimed to make this available to the public and by two-thousand and eight there were eighty volumes present in libraries, museums, galleries as well as all available for purchase from Art UK.

2008 – Complete Digitisation 

By two-thousand and eight Art UK decided that records couldn’t stay in an analogue form, with the changing nature of records and increasing use of the internet as a resource for collections and references. Books simply couldn’t keep up. This change was spurred on by the consistent development of new additions and uncovered collections thus creating a need for a ‘single space’ from which all public oil paintings could be accessed. Art UK placed all its records online with books still available to purchase by anyone who wanted them.

Did you know 80% of all UK artwork is in storage at any one time? What we see really is the tip of the iceberg. 

2012 – Unprecedented Public Response

The response to Your Paintings was phenomenal and by twenty-twelve Art UK had aggregated and digitised a massive 212,000 artworks. Art emerged from many publicly owned buildings throughout Britain, a whopping 3,000+ locations and 38,000+ artists nationwide. Your Paintings had regional experts recording and cataloguing paintings as they came in. The project had many findings, the most unusual emerging was genealogists using oil painted portraits as references for their research.

2013 – Masterpieces in Schools 

Masterpieces in Schools, a flagship project partnered with BBC Learning brought twenty-six paintings into the classroom. Real Lowy’s and Monet’s were lent by museums, collections and art galleries where the power of art and its history was transported to Primary and Secondary schools throughout the United Kingdom. The project enabled schools to go ‘off curriculum’ and seize learning for themselves. Lessons ranged from symmetry and mathematics to Welsh language and myth. All inspired by the presence of real art in the classroom.

The project illustrated Art UK’s commitment to improving public access to Britain’s art collections.

2014 – Art Detective

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In March twenty-fourteen Art UK launched Art Detective, a digital network based on public lead discussion about the nation’s artwork. Absolutely anyone can get involved and submit a question or propose a discussion about specific artworks or collections.

The resource has public participation at its centre and if a question or topic can’t be answered by Art UK or who owns the collection the discussion is ‘opened up to the floor’. From there anyone can engage in the process of shedding light on a hidden piece of art. Art Detective is unique as it draws on art specific knowledge present all over Britain; from members of the public, the Art UK collection team, group leaders with topic specific knowledge and panel members. Panel members are a handpicked group of academics and practitioners who will draw a conclusion if no-one else can. Art Detective has over 3,000 venues with an active Steering Panel of academics and experts from universities and galleries across the UK.

2017 and Beyond

Art UK has gained significant momentum since two-thousand and three, reconnecting the nation with many hundreds of thousands of oil paintings and delving into the depths of hidden collections, crunching them into a powerful database you can sift through in just a ‘click’. The organisation has grown into a team of 12-13 full-time equivalent staff and photographers who travel nationwide to digitise artworks. So what’s the future of Art UK?

Over the next three years Art UK sets out to record and digitise 170,000 national sculptures. Alice described Art UK’s sculpture project as “recording every sculpture in the UK made over the last one thousand years”. Mind boggling numbers! When asked about the strangest paintings within the collection Alice told us about a painting of Robert Burns with a shortcake biscuit behind his head. Click on the link and let it make your day!

On that note, we suggest you log on, get involved and use Art UK to bring the nations collections to you, the classroom or anywhere else. Teachers, if you’ve not heard of this before it’s a resource like no other and it can be used as the foundation for lessons relating to any subject or topic.

A massive thank-you to Alice Payne at Art UK for talking to us about such a brilliant collection and resource.


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