Spotlight on the Public Catalogue Foundation: Recording Our Artistic Heritage
Interview with Sonia Roe
There are many charities tirelessly working to preserve England's cultural heritage. The Public Catalogue Foundation is one of the newer ones to appear. We asked Sonia Roe, Editor of the PCF, about the work the Foundation does.
How would you describe the purpose of the PCF?
The PCF is an arts charity which was set up to create a record of all the oil, acrylic and tempera paintings in public ownership in the UK. We usually produce one catalogue per county. However, some large collections fill out a catalogue by themselves, such as The Imperial War Museum, The Fitzwilliam, or The Victoria & Albert (to be published in December this year). Unfortunately, due to funding cuts, many collections need to make do without curators or specialist staff to look after them. One of the main benefits of our project is that we take high-resolution colour images of all the paintings in the collections and we then give them for free to participating collections. In addition, revenue received from catalogue sales goes towards the restoration and conservation of paintings in the county [covered by the catalogue].
As Editor of the PCF, what is your role? How long have you been with the PCF?
My main role as Editor is to compile all the data that comes through for the catalogues, liaise with collections, and check all the data. We need to achieve a consistency as far as artist names and dates are concerned, so that cross-referencing between different volumes becomes seamless. I have now been with the PCF for three-and-a-half years, and I have been involved with all the catalogues that have been produced so far (fifteen).
What events formed the catalyst for the PCF's creation?
The PCF was formed in March 2003, and it was the brainchild of our Chairman, Fred Hohler, who, after visiting the Fitzwilliam one day, asked if it would be possible to purchase a catalogue of its painting collection. To his great surprise, even such a prestigious museum as the Fitzwilliam did not have a complete colour catalogue available. This led him make the same enquiry at other institutions, only to find that the situation at the Fitzwilliam was replicated on a national scale.
How close is the PCF to realising the goal of cataloguing all the nation's publicly-owned art?
Up to now we have produced fifteen catalogues. We have another five due out this year (we have an ambitious schedule of producing eight catalogues a year). We estimate that in total there will be anything up to seventy catalogues. However, another part of the project which still needs to materialise is placing the whole project online. Eventually there will be a free and fully searchable website which will enable anyone to access this data.
Does the PCF focus just on England, or on the United Kingdom in general?
For the moment we have started with England, but eventually we will catalogue all of the UK.
Have you found many foreign artworks as well as English ones?
Yes, there are many foreign paintings. Usually the large collections with over one thousand paintings tend to have a large proportion of foreign artists. Wolverhampton Art Gallery in Staffordshire has a very good selection of American Pop Art, including Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Norfolk has a large proportion of Dutch paintings. Each county has its own unique flavour.
What have been some of the PCF's most exciting discoveries? Are there any paintings that particularly spring to mind?
We are often asked this question. I think that Charles Saumarez Smith, Director of the National Gallery and also a Director of the PCF, has answered this well in the past by saying that the catalogues themselves are the 'discovery.' We estimate that an alarming four in five paintings are not on display and are kept in stores. Seeing them all together in one volume is therefore a real revelation. We also see our role as making this information publicly accessible. We are basically making the records of collections accessible to the general public. I am sure that many attributions and discoveries will be made as a result of our project.
How does the PCF go about tracking down paintings? Do people contact you to have paintings catalogued, or do you normally contact them yourself?
For each catalogue we appoint a County Coordinator, whose job it is to collate all the data and arrange for all the photography. These are the real 'art detectives': they contact local museums and galleries and compile lists of where to go and what to photograph. Naturally, as our project gathers momentum and we become more well-known, we are also approached by collections who would like to participate.
Who are the catalogues aimed at? Have they been a part of the PCF's work from the very beginning?
The catalogues are aimed at a variety of people, from art students and academics to people who would like to discover the paintings that can be found in their county. The catalogues can act as 'gazetteers,' enabling the reader to see at a glance where a painting can be found. We have repeatedly received praise for the high print quality of the catalogues. In fact, we won the Besterman McColvin Award for Outstanding Works of Reference in 2005.
How can more publicly-owned paintings be displayed?
Obviously, creating larger exhibiting space is not always possible. However, it would be wonderful to be able to rotate paintings more so that the public can at least have some access to the works of art that they own. We feel that our project is an initial step towards making the artwork in our nation more accessible to everyone. In order to grant access, you first of all need to know what is out there. No one actually knows how many oil paintings there are in the UK, but surely it must be one of the most outstanding national collections in the world.
Many thanks to Sonia Roe for her time. The interview was conducted by Isabel Taylor.