UK’s national collection now available online

Over 200,000 paintings held in the UK’s national collection have been made available to the public through an online database.

Yesterday (24 February) marked the launch of Art UK, which aims to offer images of every publicly owned painting, drawing, sculpture and print in the UK on one website.

Art UK is the successor to the ‘Your Paintings’ website, which was launched by the Public Catalogue Foundation (now Art UK) and the BBC in 2011. More than 3,000 museums and art collections are represented and project partners include Oxford University Press and the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association. The ‘Your Paintings’ website attracted around 300,000 visitors each month with nearly half coming from overseas.   

The Art UK website will facilitate unprecedented access to artworks, which members of the public would never otherwise have seen. Around 80% of publicly owned art is hidden from view in storage, on the walls of civic buildings or in the Palace of Westminster. Currently, 212,732 oil paintings attributed to 38,370 artists are available to view through the website. The majority of the artists are British but there are also contributions from Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Raphael.

Although Art UK focusses primarily on works in public ownership, private collections such as those held by Oxford and Cambridge colleges have also been included. One notable exception to the database is the Royal Collection Trust. It has twice rejected approaches from Art UK requesting permission to photograph and scan the works in its collection. According to a source reported in The Times yesterday (24 February), the trust’s objection appears to centre on the belief that its collection is private.

Art UK began by digitising oil paintings because it was the preferred medium of most well-known artists for centuries and there are far fewer oil paintings in the national collection than watercolours or drawings. From this summer, Art UK project partners will be able to upload images of watercolours, drawings and other works to the website. In 2017, Art UK will commence uploading images of the first of 100,000 sculptures which are due to be photographed as part of a four-year national project.

The Art UK launch was welcomed by industry leaders including Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery in London, who praised the project’s innovation:

“No other country has online access to such an extensive database of paintings as is provided by Art UK. That makes it unique in an international context.”

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