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Become an Art Detective and Unravel the Mysteries of the UK’s Public Collections

Art Detective is an initiative from Art UK that involves specialists and the public in solving mysteries about the public collections paintings in the UK.

Geoffrey Arthur Tibble, "The Discussion" (1948), oil on canvas (Government Art Collection, courtesy Art UK)
Geoffrey Arthur Tibble, “The Discussion” (1948), oil on canvas (Government Art Collection, courtesy Art UK). Art Detective investigation identified the subjects and the object in the catalogue held by the man.

The Art UK site includes over 3,200 locations with a database of more than 200,000 artworks, all part of the public collections of the United Kingdom. Although there are many museums represented, there are also lighthouses, fire stations, hospitals, post offices, and a center for vintage fairground rides. Because of these institutions’ limited resources, information about the art can be scarce.

Unknown artist, "Portrait of a Lady in a Black Dress with a Cameo on a Red Ribbon" (nd), oil on canvas (Peterhouse, University of Cambridge, courtesy Art UK)
Unknown artist, “Portrait of a Lady in a Black Dress with a Cameo on a Red Ribbon” (nd), oil on canvas (Peterhouse, University of Cambridge, courtesy Art UK). The identity of the sitter is a mystery.

That’s where Art Detective comes in. An initiative of Art UK started in 2014, it involves specialists and the public in art mysteries. “Although larger museums and galleries have the resources to research their collections, there has been a long-term decline in funding of the museum sector, particularly in regional museums,” Edward Stone, who manages Art Detective, told Hyperallergic. “So there might not be the time, or the expertise, at all museums to learn more about the art they hold.”

There are over 300 active discussions on individual works, delving into their subjects, creators, and curious details, like why a sitter’s gaze in a 19th-century portrait by José Buzo Cáceres at the College of Optometrists is totally obstructed by the consuming “railway spectacles” on his face. The identity of a lady in a black dress at the University of Cambridge is also in question, as is the artist who painted an 18th-century mythological scene centering on a goat wearing a floral crown in the Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection.

“If contributors do not have a background in art history they may instead have other specialisms to draw upon, like knowledge of family history, local history, or topography,” Stone noted. The site features a guide to how to research a painting, as well as groups that connect specialists to themes such as dress and textiles, transport and industry, and maritime subjects.

Philip John Ouless, "The 'Oliver Blanchard' of Jersey off a Volcanic Island at Night" (1862), oil on canvas (Jersey Museum and Art Gallery, courtesy Art UK)
Philip John Ouless, “The ‘Oliver Blanchard’ of Jersey off a Volcanic Island at Night” (1862), oil on canvas (Jersey Museum and Art Gallery, courtesy Art UK). Art Detective discussion led to the identification of the ship and island.

While many enigmatic artworks remain, there have been significant discoveries through the public involvement. The Guardian reported in August that a portrait of an unknown World War I soldier was linked to the war records of 2nd Lt Paul Chancourt Girardo, who died from a shell explosion at the age of 19. The work was painted by his mother. For Geoffrey Arthur Tibble’s “The Discussion” (1948), one of his daughter’s recognized her father in a rare self-portrait, and another daughter identified the African carving he’s presenting in a catalogue, adding a photograph of it to the painting’s context. A fiery scene in a Jersey Heritage maritime painting was pinpointed as the volcanic Graham Island that formed during an 1831 eruption, then vanished the following year, and “Heraclitus, Ancient Greek Scientist” at Museums Sheffield was attributed to Dutch painter Johannes Moreelse, whose work is rarely catalogued.

Each crowdsourced attribution, location recovery, and naming of subjects adds to the collective art historical understanding. As Stone stated, “Art Detective is designed to put these collections directly in touch with providers of specialist knowledge, to help them uncover the information that they might not have access to otherwise.”

"Unidentified Mill Scene" (British (English) School, 182025), oil on canvas (Manchester Art Gallery, courtesy Art UK)
“Unidentified Mill Scene” (British (English) School, 182025), oil on canvas (Manchester Art Gallery, courtesy Art UK). Discussion is ongoing about the location of the original scene.
Attributed to Louis de Boullogne the younger, "The Infancy of Bacchus" (1700-10), oil on canvas (Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council), courtesy Art UK)
Attributed to Louis de Boullogne the younger, “The Infancy of Bacchus” (1700-10), oil on canvas (Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council), courtesy Art UK). Discussion is underway about its attribution and subject.
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