They are the hidden cultural gems of the West Midlands which never see the light of day.
Thousands of paintings are held in collections which due to lack of wall space are tucked away out of sight in storage.
The problem has always existed: in the 1880s, Claude Monet expressed a frustration felt by many painters and art enthusiasts. “What’s the point of us painting pictures,” he wrote, “if the public never gets to see them?”
There was, explains Andrew Ellis, director of the Public Catalogue Foundation, simply not the space to exhibit them all.
Until now, that is.
In an ambitious project that will have been ten years in the making by its estimated completion next year, researchers and photographers have created an online catalogue of the UK’s entire collection of oil paintings.
“Art is made to be seen,” said Mr Ellis, “and across the UK we have a rich collection of oil paintings. But an estimated 80 per cent of these paintings cannot be seen because we don’t have enough space to show them in.
"Everyone in the world can now see the entire collection of oil paintings in the UK, from Seattle to Mumbai to Shanghai.”
He said: “We believe – certainly no one has contradicted us about this – that no other country in the world has done anything like this.’’
Oil paintings were selected as the medium of choice because it was an “achievable” goal, according to Mr Ellis. The total national oil painting collection amounts to some 200,000 works – relatively modest compared to the vast number of watercolours, for example.
More than 3,000 oil paintings from Birmingham have just been added to the collection, including works by Monet, Whistler, Hogarth, Gainsborough, Rosetti, John Bratby and Degas.
Twelve institutions across the city contributed to the project, from major collections at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and the University of Birmingham to smaller collections from the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists and the Birmingham and Midland Institute.
They can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings
Marie Considine, gallery director of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists Gallery, said: “We jumped at the chance. It’s such a wonderful opportunity to let the public know what we have tucked away in our store.”
The society has a historic collection of artworks that are usually displayed once a year.
“We are a small charity and don’t have the facilities to show them online ourselves,” Ms Considine said.
She added: “I think the fact that all the images have been taken and are now going to be online is quite special.”
The project, Your Paintings, is a partnership between the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation, which was set up in 2003.
Its principal funders are bodies including Arts Council England, Christie’s, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the J Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust, the Monument Trust, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the Wolfson Foundation.
Many paintings had not been photographed before, and the project has granted copyright of the photographs to the collections, an “incredibly generous” gesture according to Ms Considine.
The project wants to get the public involved by inviting them to “tag” the nation’s paintings on the site.
Users can tag paintings with one-word descriptions: “girl”, “hat”, “cat”, “roses”, for example, which then act as categories for other users to search through.
“We really want the public to get involved in the project in a fun and interesting way,” said Mr Ellis. “There is a lot of subject matter that is interesting to people. It’s not just about coming to the site for the paintings, but what the paintings portray.
‘‘You don’t have to know anything about art to tag: this is open to everyone.”
Ms Considine said she “loved” the idea of tagging. Fashion historians, for example, can search for items of clothing, while other researchers can search for what they are investigating.
Mr Ellis does not believe viewing paintings online will stop people trying to see them in museums.
“Completely the opposite: it will encourage people to go and see them for real,” he said. “There is no contention here: seeing paintings for real is better than seeing them online.’’
Clare Mullett, deputy university curator of research and cultural collections at the University of Birmingham, said: “The website is a wonderful way to bring the collections together and make them more accessible.
While the collections at the University are open to everyone, university requirements mean that members of the public need to make an appointment to see the paintings.
Ms Mullett added: “Nothing before has brought together collections city by city. It’s about a sense of public ownership of these things, and how people can get involved with the paintings in their city.”
She is hopeful it could lead to more collaborations between Birmingham collections.
“I think it makes people proud,” she said. “I think it encourages collaboration and makes the paintings available for everyone to see.”
Birmingham collections to have contributed to the Your Paintings project are at:
• Aston University
• Birmingham and Midland Institute
• Birmingham Central Library
• Birmingham City University
• Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
• City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Centre
• Royal Birmingham Society of Artists
• The Barber Institute of Fine Arts
• University of Birmingham
• Warwickshire County Cricket Club Museum
• West Midlands Fire Service Headquarters
• West Midlands Police Museum