In 2012, the Public Catalogue Foundation, which operates the charity Art UK, announced that it, in partnership with the BBC, had successfully put images of all 211,861 paintings owned publicly by the UK online in a database. Now, seven years later, Art UK is setting out to do the same for the UK’s public sculptures.
Only in its early stages at the moment, the project will make public works more accessible for anyone with a computer. Art UK expects that by the end of 2020, around 150,000 sculptures will be digitally documented. Not only will this mean that geography will become a non-issue for anyone wanting to explore the UK’s vast collection of public artworks but it will also allow anyone to see the thousands of sculptures that remain in storage.
Andrew Ellis, director of Art UK, told The Guardian that the variety of sculptures own by the UK ‘is just stunning and what is extraordinary is that it is going to be so much more global.’ Much like the database of paintings, the sculptural database will catalogue the good, the bad, and the ugly, but that allows anyone to see and better understand the evolution of sculpture, and not only sculpture of the western world, much like paintings. ‘Paintings are predominantly a western European tradition but the sculpture collection we are bringing together is from across the world, and you can see that already. There are Buddhas, there are Hindu reliefs in Northampton from the 12th century and that is just the first thousand records,’ explains Ellis.
The database will also allow for better understanding of the conditions of public artworks. Photos of the sculptures document the current status of sculptural works. For example, a work by Walter Bailey in central Brighton has endured graffiti and sits in a less-than-picturesque location, but it’s documented nonetheless. Another sculpture of controversy that will be included on the audit is a Boer War memorial in Glasgow that was recently defaced. Art UK, though, has photos from before and after the vandalism. There are also the good, yet intriguing sculptures like Auguste Rodin’s large-scale statue called Eve from his unfinished Gates of Hell project. Purchased from the Rodin Museum in Paris in 1959 for £2,360, the statue resides in Harlow somewhat unceremoniously outside of a Nando’s restaurant. The first sculpture to be photographed for the audit, though, is Jacob Epstein’s 1918 sculpture of Marchesa Luisa Casati Stampa di Soncino, an Italian arts patron, that belongs to Southend’s collection. Other artists that will be among some the first to be documented include the likes of Henry Moore, Elisabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth, and Lynn Chadwick.
Cataloguing sculptural works from the last 1,000 years, excluding antiquities, the project will cost around £3.8 million, with £2 million coming from the National Lottery Heritage Foundation and the other £1.8 million from various donors. In addition to garnering exposure and accessibility, Ellis expects the project to encourage a larger range of questions including concerns for the underrepresentation of female artists and artists of colour, colonialism, slavery, and handling the nude body in public.