Manchester and Preston's football paintings bring a mighty arts project to a triumphant end

More than 210,000 artworks in public ownership will be viewable free online by mid-December. Photographers are recording the last 54 at the National Football Museum today

It's a great day today for one of those enlightened projects - the Open University is a particularly good example, or the BBC - which the UK sometimes conceives imaginatively and brings to fruition with brio.

By the end of the afternoon, the last 54 artworks in a huge stash of more than 210,000 oil paintings in public ownership will have been photographed by technical experts and prepared for uploading online.

They are a eclectic collection belonging to the National Football Museum, typical in their variety of the mixture which characterises most art in public hands. I remember reviewing one of the earliest volumes – a book as well as an online display – created by the organising Public Catalogue Foundation, of the paintings here in Leeds. They ranged from valuable work by famous artists to a couple of amateur studies of trams on the walls of Beeston branch library.

The NFM's artworks, some on show in Manchester and the others in store at Preston, include a rosy-cheeked spectator with a ciggie clenched between his teeth, painted by commercial artist Alfred Lambert and used in the 1920s for cigarette advertising, complete with an austerity slogan saying 'Save packets for the national effort.' A much more flamboyant oil, painted as recently as 1997 by Michael J Browne and called The Beautiful Game, shows Eric Cantona, Fergie and other Manchester United stars in Renaissance style, based on Piero della Francesca's Resurrection.

Unusually, this was painted in public at a bar in Castlefields in Manchester, with Cantona modelling for it. The French star later bought the painting and has loaned it to the museum.

This wealth of background information is going online along with high quality images of the paintings; 172,000 are already up here and the whole collection, by more than 45,000 artists, is due to be available free by mid-December. The places where they hang or lie in storage are equally fascinating: not just the predictable galleries and town halls but a fire station, several police stations and a lighthouse.

This heroic work by the Public Catalogue Foundation, working with the BBC, was the brainchild of Dr Fred Hohler, a farmer and landowner who previously worked as a diplomat and banker. His father taught for many years at the Courtauld Institute of Art and he was inspired to attempt his extraordinary project after visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and later his local museum in Maidstone, Kent, and discovering that neither had a catalogue.

He told Charles Saumarez-Smith in an interview for Apollo magazine in April:

The ambition of the Foundation – for me at any rate – has been to try to demonstrate to the owners of these collections that they are valuable assets that can, with thought and good management, be used not just to make the lives of their citizens happier and more fulfilled, but also to develop enduring economic activity for the profit of their communities,' he says. 'Holding vast amounts of fine art in stores, leaving it up to fewer and fewer curators with less and less funding and diminishing relevant training to choose ever smaller numbers of works to put on show in their galleries, swiftly turns these assets into liabilities. Worse, it serves to limit public access to an ever-narrowing cultural experience.

Less than 15 percent of the £6 million raised to pay for the project has come from public funds, but public figures are eager to praise it. The culture secretary Ed Vaizey says:

The inclusion of the National Football Museum's 54 paintings marks the completion of an ambitious project that is a world first. Never before has an entire nation's oil paintings been made available online and this tremendous achievement means that our incredible collection of more than 200,000 works will be more accessible to everyone than ever before.

The National Football Museum's own Kevin Moore adds his own tribute:

This is a fantastic project and something we're very excited to be a part of. The oil paintings are key pieces within the museum and this is a wonderful way to open up our collection to a much wider audience; we're really proud to have them included in the first ever, online catalogue of its kind.

Dr Hohler is happy and satisfied and full of praise for Andy Ellis, the director of the foundation, who has headed its operations from the start. He says:

Completing the photography takes us within an inch of completing the original PCF project. This is a huge achievement for the small dedicated team behind the Foundation, led throughout by Andy Ellis. Making public the 210,000 paintings in public ownership gives a new meaning to the concept of public access. It is an enormous public benefaction, which now needs to be maintained and sustained into the future.

You can see the paintings already online here and a Guardian picture gallery here. A smaller regional equivalent, Yorkshire's Favourite Paintings, was highlighted in the Northerner last year and is well worth surfing.

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