The Public Catalogue Foundation: cover story
An astonishment of riches; In town halls, fire stations, hospitals and museums across Britain languish 200,000 unsung works of art. But two former bankers hope to lift them from obscurity with the publication of a national catalogue.

"You came all the way from London, for that?" the taxi driver at Stoke railway station says incredulously as he consults his map for the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. "To see a few pots?" I am about to explain that, actually, I have come to see one of Britain's most interesting and unsung collections of early 20th-century painting, which happens to be in a contemporary art wing of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, but within seconds we have already arrived.

At the museum I begin to understand the driver's scepticism. It is half-term and the museum foyer echoes like a crowded swimming pool with children's voices. Upstairs in the art gallery, though, it is silent. One or two couples are slowly making their way round the display. There's a dashing portrait of the poet Stephen Spender as a young man by the Vorticist Wyndham Lewis. "It is one of the gems of the display," says Jean Milton, the gallery's curator. Round the corner are a couple of brooding cityscapes by Lowry, populated by his dour, bent figures. Next to them is a pair of portraits by John Currie, in which a red-haired young woman is portrayed as a lover and then as a betrayer: "That was painted just before Currie killed both himself and her," explains Milton. "And here is a lovely Alfred Munnings, from 1919," she says, gesturing towards a painting of a summer drinks party of such sunlit postwar gaiety that I feel cheated not to be there myself.

They are the sorts of paintings that ought to have a crowd round them - but hardly anyone knows they are there. Indeed, at any one time only 20 per cent of the museum's collection is on display - the rest are kept in a storeroom where Milton, pulling out one of the floor-to-ceiling racks, reveals a portrait by Walter Sickert. "There's a Duncan Grant here. A Laura Knight. A Samuel Peploe. A William Orpen . . . " Some of the works are not in the best condition. One, a sombre-toned but swashbuckling portrait of a man, which the museum once thought to be a Caravaggio, has a lump of old masking tape stuck to the canvas. "We don't have our own conservator," says Milton. "We have to raise funds for conservation."

It was the experience of discovering unfamiliar paintings in conditions like this that led to the creation five years ago of the Public Catalogue Foundation, a charity that will record and photograph every one of the 200,000 or so oil, tempera or acrylic paintings in public ownership in Britain.

The first seeds of the idea came to Dr Fred Hohler, a former diplomat, while he was visiting Victoria, Australia. Hohler and his wife had been encouraged to go on a cultural tour to give his newly-wed daughter and son-in-law a bit of space. Hohler found a wealth of small public art galleries. "It was in Ballarat that it happened," he explains. "I was struck by the quality of art I was seeing from an 1840s township and thought, 'What the hell is happening back home?' "

Back in Britain, Hohler began popping into regional museums whenever he could, and was astonished by their riches. But it wasn't much more than a hobby horse until a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in 2001. Dropping off another daughter at university, he discovered that the museum didn't have its own catalogue. "The Fitzwilliam is a world-beating gallery. Not to have a catalogue is just gruesome," says Hohler. "So, after making a scene in the museum shop, I was ushered up to see the curator." After that, each time Hohler went to a museum or gallery, he checked to see if it had a catalogue. The majority didn't.

And so it was that Hohler hit on the notion of a national catalogue that would enable the public to unearth these hidden works, hung in disparate locations around the country, including fire stations, hospitals and town halls - especially as 80 per cent of them are in storage. But by the time the foundation finishes its project, we will be able to search for Gainsboroughs by postcode.

Tall, athletic, 64 years old, with intelligent blue eyes and thick white hair, Hohler is founder and chairman of the Public Catalogue Foundation. We meet in his chambers at the Mercers, a City livery company, where Hohler is currently Master. The airy sitting room is full of bold, colourful paintings. "We recently catalogued the Guildhall, so I have borrowed these Matthew Smiths," says Hohler, jumping up to point out the warm tones and broad brushstrokes of the English Matisse. He leads me into a small adjoining boardroom. On the wall, dwarfing us, is a glamorous brunette whose alabaster décolleté is offset by a long string of pearls. The portrait is by John Lavery. "It was used on banknotes in Ireland from 1928 until the 1970s. It's bloody good, isn't it?"

Educated at Eton and Oxford (Chinese at Oriel, a PhD at St Antony's), Hohler worked in the Foreign Office for almost two decades before, in 1985, joining the stockbroker Zoete and Bevan: "I did it for about four years, it was horrible," he confesses. He left to set up a financial services sector search firm and went on to "company-doctor" for Hambros Group Investments. After the bank was sold to Investec he retired to his farm, a working one with cattle, arable and woodland, near Brands Hatch, Kent, where he lives with his wife, Sarah, two of his four daughters and six grandchildren.

Hohler's passion for art is late-flourishing. His father, a medievalist who taught at the Courtauld, encouraged his son to think that "any art post-1666 was contemporary and, therefore, of no interest," he explains.

At Oxford, his study of Chinese totalitarianism made him view museums with some scepticism. "I developed a political resistance to galleries. I am very much a libertarian, and art controlled by government is something to which I am very hostile still, actually," he admits. "That is one of the reasons that I felt strongly that the public ought to have a right to know exactly what it owns, even if the majority of the art is not on display."

But then, in the summer of 2000, postretirement and stimulated by his museum discoveries, Hohler set off for Charles Cecil's atelier in Florence - a traditional-minded art academy, where he learned to draw. There, he learnt the technique of the Old Masters. "I could not draw at all at the beginning," he says before jumping up again to show me a delicate Michelangelo-esque study of a female head in burnt umber pencil. "This is what I could do by the time I left. Learning to draw was the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me."

It was a year or so after this that he met Andrew Ellis, 47, another ex-banking high-flier interested in changing careers, and recruited the former managing director for Asia Pacific equity research at JP Morgan Chase as director of the foundation.

"To begin with, we had to 'cold-call' collections," Ellis tells me when I visit him at the PCF offices in Covent Garden. "We used to say to museums, 'I'm calling from the Public Catalogue Foundation and we would like to come round and photograph your paintings and put them in a catalogue of your county's oil paintings.' Not surprisingly, they said, 'Who are you?' "

It not only took time to gain the confidence of the art world, but it was also a challenging and piecemeal process to raise the necessary funds. The PCF is dedicated to showing us, in both hardback catalogue form and online, all the paintings we own. So far it has recorded about 45,000 works and estimates that, by the time the project is finished in 2012, some 200,000 paintings will have been recorded in 90 catalogues.

To Hohler's and Ellis's disappointment and surprise, no money was forthcoming from government and Heritage Lottery Fund sources, so they set to work persuading local dignitaries, businessmen and lord lieutenants. They approached the task county by county, starting with Kent, Hohler's home turf. "At the time, there was no product, just a concept," says Ellis. "And not only was it just a concept, it looked like a ridiculously eccentric, ambitious and impossible concept." To date the PCF has been funded mainly by private patrons and trusts such as Garfield Weston and the Sainsbury family's trusts, with only a little help from the public sector and government-funded schemes such as Renaissance in the Regions.

The project also caught the eye of illustrious figures in the art world. Some are now on the board of the foundation, among them Alan Borg, a former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Dr Charles Saumarez Smith, chief executive of the Royal Academy and former director of the National Gallery. Saumarez Smith agrees that, initially, there was some doubt in the art community that the project would work. "Why should it be possible for two people, not in the profession, to come in and do something on this scale? It probably involves over a thousand museums . . . To have published something on that scale simply by small-scale funding - passing the hat around, shall we say - by individuals is a heroic achievement."

Hohler and Ellis brim with tales about their trips to museums and galleries around Britain. Hohler describes how a while back he went to a local museum (no names mentioned) and was given the key to the gallery. "I couldn't find the light switch and found myself putting my hand on a canvas. I eventually found the light and realised I had put my hand on a wonderful self-portrait by Roger Fry. And when I asked, the woman at the front desk said, 'We hung it there because there was a nail' . . . "

The PCF photographs each painting and, in return, the museum receives free digital images. For some institutions, and certainly for fire stations and hospitals, it is the first time that they have ever had high-quality digital images of their works, let alone a full catalogue raisonné. The images can be used to produce fliers, postcards and posters, while the catalogues are proving invaluable for curators: it is now possible to have a quick flick through to see what is there and, sometimes more importantly, what is not.

While the project is of obvious benefit to academics, curators and students, Hohler and Ellis expect the greatest public awareness of the project to come when a planned free website is up and running - Ellis estimates that 70,000 paintings will have made it online by the end of next year. Funding provided, that is.

Ellis and Hohler have also devised a Wikipedia-style strategy to help with attribution on the website. "There will be a suggestion box," says Ellis. "So people will be able to suggest the names of artists and sitters. This will then be passed on to academics and specialists. Twenty-five per cent cent of the paintings in Kent do not have artists attributed to them, you know."

Schoolchildren and student volunteers will be able to get involved with "tagging" - grouping certain subjects together on the database: "It will be a way of enthusing young people about art near where they live."

Will the PCF shut up shop after its mission is accomplished? "Absolutely not," says Ellis. There are plenty of other projects in the pipeline. One is to organise exhibitions of paintings from regional museums at Christie's. These will be held during the summer, a quiet period for auction houses.

Meanwhile, there is the rest of Britain to catalogue. "One nice thing," says Ellis, "is that now we have galleries in Scotland, for example, ringing us up and asking, 'When are you going to do Scotland? We want to be catalogued'!"

To contact the Public Catalogue Foundation call Andrew Ellis on +44 (0)20 7395 0332 or visit