Your Paintings and Alison Mitchelson

Paintings from Northern Ireland's national collection have been unearthed from basements and 'secret stores' and made available online

Who/What/Where/Why/When is Alison Mitchelson?

I am a freelance curator and the Your Paintings Northern Ireland co-ordinator. I research where the paintings are, collate all data on the individual paintings and collections and organise and oversee the photography. I feel really privileged, as I will probably be the only person in the world to have seen all of these paintings 'in the flesh' so to speak.

What Is Your Paintings? Why is this project important?

The Public Catalogue Foundation is cataloguing and digitising all oil, tempera and acrylic paintings in public ownership throughout the UK. Many of the paintings are hidden away, in museum’s stores, council offices, Town Halls or hospitals, so project gives the public access to painting they might otherwise never see.

As the Northern Ireland co-ordinator who have you been working with over here?

I have dealt with a wide range of people and institutions. The first 1600 paintings added to Your Paintings came from the National Museums Northern Ireland. To get all the images I worked with the Head of Art, Kim Mawhinney, and the handling and documentation team at the NMNI stores.

There are about 1200 images still to be added to the website, and they came from all corners of the province. Some came from Enniskillen Castle, the Derry Museums Service, Larne and Down Councils and other organisation such as Belfast City Council, the Royal Hospitals and Queen’s University, Belfast. In the museums I dealt with the curators, but it was rather tricky sometimes in other organisations to find the right person. A lot of the time I was dealing with people who knew very little about what they had hanging on their walls.

Do you have any good stories about collecting the images?

A few! At the Tower of City Hospital I was led down into the basement and didn't really know where I was going to end up. Another time I had to chase the curator of one museum along the motorway, dashing in and out of lanes, to find their 'secret' store. The funniest story, though, was probably the time when someone at an organisation recognised the person in a nude painting! They jumped out of their seat and almost pounced upon the painting to look at it more closely!

The most interesting locations for me were the ones that the public very rarely get access to, like Hillsborough Castle and the Mayor’s parlours at Belfast City Hall and Lisburn City Council.

Who are some of the more famous painters whose paintings are kept in Northern Ireland?

The collection in Northern Ireland is rich with local artists. The collections include T.P Flanagan, Richard Croft, William Scott, Henrietta Rae and Frank McKelvey. There are also more modern artists like Elizabeth Magill, Rita Duffy and David Crone, as well as some of the nationally and internationally famous ones, like Turner, Gainsborough and Orpen. The most famous local boy, will, of course, be Sir John Lavery. We have images of his work from NMNI, Queen’s University and Belfast City Hall.

Did you uncover any paintings that surprised you? 

I was always on the look-out for my 'Michelangelo'! Unfortunately we didn’t find one in NI.

What surprised me the most, though, was how artists grew on you. I never used to like William Conor, but after seeing so much of his work, I am very fond of him now. He feels like an old friend! I thought I was going to find lots of paintings of the Titanic secreted away in the collections, but actually there were only a few. There were numerous King Billy’s though, at least one in nearly every collection.

I do think that anyone looking at the paintings on Your Paintings will be surprised at the variety and importance of the collection from here. It rivals any regional and national collection throughout the rest of the UK.

Do you have a favourite painting from here so far?

The Lavery’s are very hard to beat but Lydia de Burgh painted a lovely image of Queen Elizabeth II, which I think is just stunning. It belongs to the Northern Ireland Office and is on display at Hillsborough Castle.

What is 'tagging' and why do you want people to do on My Paintings?

Tagging is like the public sharing their knowledge on the paintings, so you don’t really need to know a lot about art, you could just tag a place or a thing that you find familiar and you are participating greatly to this fantastic project to making these hidden paintings more accessible.

How many paintings were there from Northern Ireland in the end?

NMNI is made up of around 1600 paintings and the rest will equate to around 1200. Not all collections have participated in the project, so although this number is high, there are probably more paintings out there (hidden in council buildings).

To see (and tag) the Northern Ireland collection go to the BBC Your Paintings Website and the PFC Your Paintings Tagger