The national gallery

Artists' self-portraits from Your Paintings
Artists’ self-portraits from Your Paintings

I have, tucked away in a cardboard box somewhere, a large collection of postcards of paintings from small galleries up and down the UK. Years ago, when somehow there was more time to do such things, I would go out on regular trips to towns to pursue the kinds of paintings that seldom made into exhibitions or catalogues. Mostly they were terrible stuff, dim portraits of long forgotten civic dignitaries, lifeless still lifes, or misattributed Rembrandts. But in every gallery there at least one gem, maybe two or three, which caught the eye and stopped the breath, making the whole day’s venture worthwhile. Some little touch of genius, all the more special for being hidden away from the general eye.

And then I would seek out the postcards, almost invariably finding out that the painting that I favoured was not one favoured by the gallery’s marketing person and so wasn’t available in postcard form. But I would pursue things further, knowing that most galleries had a photographic record of their entire collection, and I would beg a black-and-white print which I promised to keep for personal research interest only. Many galleries most generously obliged, and I still have those prints, tucked away in the same cardboard box, monochrome memories of colours past.

And now look where we are, and how good the times are in which we live, some of the time. Your Paintings, a joint project between the BBC, the Public Catalogue Foundation and participating collections and museums from across the UK, has made available online all 212,000 oil paintings held in public collections in the UK. Every one. All digitised, described, and browsable by artist, gallery or subject. It’s such a glorious offering – a model example of how the Internet has brought out the best in us.

Where to begin? Well, I’ve been seeking out favourite artists: R.B. Martineau, a Pre-Raphaelite whose unfinished works are that much superior to those he completed; Ivon Hitchens, he of abstract landscapes where trees, fields and houses blend in together lyrically; Adolphe Monticelli, he of mysteriously detailed paintings with thick impasto that influenced Van Gogh; David Jones, symbolist and visionary (not much represented because he mostly painted in watercolour); the glorious, just glorious Jack Yeats. And I’ve been strolling virtually through favourite galleries: Manchester City Galleries, Aberdeen, York. So many familiar images, and so many more unknown til now, paintings brought out of the stores, displayed at last on the infinitely extendable walls of the Web.

Not surprisingly, they don’t just show you the artworks – they make you work for them too. The 212,000 oil paintings come with title, artist and gallery name, but lack descriptions. SO the public is being asked to tag the paintings. If you sign up for the Your Paintings Tagger, you are presented with a painting selected at random. This you have to classify according to the Things or Ideas you can see in the painting (an interesting challenge when it comes to abstract works), with suggestions appearing from an online dictionary as you type; once you’ve done this you go on to People (selecting from a Wikipedia-generated list); Places; Events; Type (a bit limited this – you can choose Abstract, Landscape, Portrait, Seascape, Still Life or Other – I’ve ended up picking a lot of Others); and finally Subject, for which a classified list is provided. Once you done this, one come the next painting. And so you go on, with the site congratulating each time you reach some small milestone of paintings described. The odd celebrity image turns up to say well done – I’ve received the thanks of Frank Skinner and Monty Don so far. It is, to be honest, a bit on the dull side – compared to the curation tools provided by the Rijksmuseum, as described here in an earlier post – and more might have been done to make the process of classifying a little more rewarding than getting a photo-message from a TV gardener.

Talking of celebrities (this is a BBC resource – there just have to be celebrities), there’s a section of the site called Guided Tours where people you love because you’ve seen them on a screen somewhere tell you about their favourite paintings. There’s also a My Paintings option where you can build up your own gallery, for which you need to sign in with a BBC iD, something that I’d not come across before and which I feel strangely reluctant to try out.

Your Paintings has been funded out of charitable donations with the simple aim of making what is owned by the public available to the public. The images have been made available for viewing on the site only (they are each “protected with a secure invisible digital watermark” the site assures us, to prevent unauthorised reuse), and you will have to go to the galleries themselves if you want copies yourself, though the PCF will be offering a print on demand service soon.

There so much else that could be done with such a dataset – imagine if it included the price that each painting had cost your local museum or gallery – and I am sceptical of the scattergun approach to subject-indexing that is crowdsourced tagging. Much of the artwork is mundane; some of it is truly dire; the better part is enthralling. It won’t mean the end of visit to galleries – it will if anything send more people to galleries. But it does challenge the idea of what a gallery is. It used to be somewhere that you went to to experience things that were finer than the plain world around you. Now the gallery, every gallery, comes to you. Has that brightened the plain world more generally? I think that it has.

Update (February 2016):
Ars may be longa, but digital lives are brevis. The Your Paintings site is no longer to be hosted by the BBC, but will instead be hosted by the Public Catalogue Foundation (the charity which funded the digitisation of the artworks) under a new title and web address, Art UK ( Anyone with a folder of selected paintings on Your Paintings will need to re-register with the new site, as such personal settings will not be carried over to the new site (they suggest taking a screenshot of your selections to remind you…). Art UK launches officially on 24 February 2016. Let’s hope it lasts.


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One thought on “The national gallery

  1. “How good the times are in which we live some of the time…the Internet has brought out the best in us”.

    It is when you stop and consider what this one, comparatively small, simple project is and its effect now and in the future on the public use and perception of painting and Art, that you are reminded just how revolutionary is this medium with which we are communicating here.

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