Terry Grimley reports on the Birmingham volume in an ambitious project to document the nation's art collections.


Images of around 2,000 paintings in 12 public-collections in Birmingham have been pub-lished together for the first time in a single volume.

The latest instalment in a visionary project to publish all the oil paintings (also including tempera and acrylic) in public ownership in Britain, it is being delivered by a speciallyformed charity, The Public Catalogue Foundation, with funding from the National Lottery and a wide range of sponsors.

The Birmingham catalogue is the 20th in the series to be published. Recent volumes have ranged from the Victoria & Albert Museum and Government Art Collection (London's share of the nation's art is so vast that a whole volume will be needed just to cover Camden) to Staffordshire, including the Black Country.

Future West Midlands volumes will be devoted to Warwickshire (including Coventry) and Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcester-shire. "The sequence is slightly random, depending on the opportunities for partnerships," says Andrew Hill, director of the project. "In this case, we had fantastic support from the West Midlands museums hub."

The project was conceived by the PCF's founder and chairman, Fred Hohler, a businessman and art enthusiast who became increasingly frustrated on visiting museums around the country to find that not only were most of their paintings in store, but no up-to-date catalogues seemed to be available.

Mr Hill recalls: "The famous story is that he was at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and when they told him there was no catalogue of the collection, he turned around to everyone in the shop and asked if there was a catalogue of all these paintings would you buy it? And when they said yes he asked to be taken to the director. The concept was born and went on from there."

The Birmingham volume has been compiled by Dr Camilla Stewart, who grew up in Shropshire and was already familiar with the city's major collections. But even long-term Birmingham residents might be surprised to find that it covers no fewer than 12 public collections in the city.

As well as the city's two major collections in the Museum & Art Gallery and the Barber Institute, they include all three universities, the Birmingham & Midland Institute, Birmingham Central Library, the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, the CBSO, Warwickshire County Cricket Club, West Midlands Police Museum and West Midlands Fire Service, which owns just one painting.

How did Dr Stewart go about rounding up all these collections? "You phone everybody," she says simply. "We aim to include all collections that are publicly-funded, and we try to include independent museums that are registered museums even though they're not. There are 200 paintings from Birmingham City University and they were found by trawling through various departments."

In fact, the BCU collection is one of the catalogue's chief surprises. As well as such historic documents as a self-portrait by early 20th century artist Joseph Southall and a portrait by an unknown artist of Sir Granville Bantock, composer and first principal of the Birmingham School of Music, there is a large collection of recent paintings - bright, lively but mainly derivative - by students of the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design.

Unfortunately documentation seems to have been somewhat casual, because many of these works are attributed to "Unknown artist late 20th C".

What about NHS trusts? According to Dr Stewart, they denied owning any paintings, but when I worked at the former General Hospital back in the early 1970s I seem to remember a corridor lined with portraits of medical celebrities. And one major heritage item owned by the NHS has definitely gone AWOL - Reynolds' portrait of Dr John Ash, founder of the General Hospital, which is currently on loan to the Museum & Art Gallery.

It's become a cliche to say that museums keep large proportions of their collections in store. Many of these are in rotation, and it is rarely acknowledged that many works are too indifferent in quality to justify permanent wall-space.

The Barber Institute is a rare exception, a small and highly-selective collection which has never accepted gifts - the main route by which second-rate art usually gets into public collections - other than from its founder, Lady Barber.

Oddly, Lady Barber seems to have been somewhat obsessed with having her portrait painted, and contributed no fewer than 19 of them, plus four paintings of her garden, to a collection ranging from Simone Martini to Van Gogh.

By contrast, the catalogue unleashes a real cornucopia from the Museum & Art Gallery's stores. Many of these unfamiliar paintings fit into a number of broad genres, including brown portraits of aldermen and other local worthies and 19th century paintings, often by unknown and sometimes quite amateurish hands, of local topographical interest. Many of these reveal the once-rural aspect of suburbs like Washwood Heath and Alum Rock.

Then there are paintings which don't fit any obvious pattern of display, like the portrait by the 1950s French artist Roger Chapelain-Midy, and Victorian landscapes - a genre which might reward reassessment at some point in an exhibition along the lines of the one from the Royal Academy collection shown at Compton Verney last year.

Birmingham really ought to have a proper local history museum with a gallery devoted to topographical views.

It would be hard to argue that the Museum & Art Gallery is keeping a large quantity of masterpieces away from the public gaze, though you might argue that there are some works at the margins which have had a bit of a raw deal.

For instance, there's a group of small paintings from the late 1930s to mid-1940s by Robert Buhler, Victor Pasmore and Richard Eurich which, taken together, reflect the sensibility of British art at that time.

Art in Britain between the wars was generally pretty conservative, and the Birmingham collection has little that reflects the more daring artists of the time.

But there is a group of landscapes from the 1920s, including minor but interesting artists like Ethelbert White and Elliott Seabrook, which might be worth shining a light on.

Of all the more substantial collections, Birmingham University's is the most puzzlingly random. As you would expect, it includes many portraits of academics, ranging from the frankly dull to the more or less lively, including two by notable contemporary artists Humphrey Ocean and Tom Phillips. An interesting group of portraits of John Galsworthy and his family by Munich-trained Georg Sauter and his son Rudolf brings a flavour of Austro-German Symbolism to Edgbaston.

Then there is a group of six paintings by Roger Fry, four from the 1980s by influential critic John Bratby and major commissions from Peter Lanyon and John Walker.

There are two ancient and highly unusual paintings in a 17th century portrait of the comedian Tom Skelton and The Ages of Man - the only treatment I have ever seen of this subject - by Cornelis Saftleven (1607-1681).

The whole Public Catalogue Foundation project is aiming for completion in 2012, and it is planned that it will eventually be available online, where inevitable updates and revisions will be much more practical.

No other country in the world will have such extensive and readily-accessible documentation of what the project is treating as a single, national collection.

"The benefits to scholarship in terms of being able to analyse the history of collecting in the last 150-200 years will be tremendous," says Brendan Flynn, curator of fine art at the Museum & Art Gallery.

"When this is online, it's going to make organising exhibitions so much easier."

Oil Paintings in Public ownership: Birmingham will be on sale at £20 paperback, £35 hardback. For full details of The Public Catalogue Foundation, visit www.thepcf.org.uk