Photography is getting underway in the largest ever sculpture project undertaken in the UK

Over the next two years, Art UK is aiming to digitise around 170,000 sculptures, which are located inside galleries, museums and public buildings and outdoors in parks, streets and squares, the length and breadth of the UK

Marchesa Luisa Casati Stampa di Soncino, Sir Jacob Epstein, 1918 © the artist’s estate. Photo, Art UK


These will then be displayed on the free-to-access website for enjoyment, learning and research – the first database of its kind in the world.

The very first photography session has just taken place at the Beecroft Art Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, Essex. The first work captured was a sculpture of the head of the legendary Italian heiress and patron of the arts Marchesa Luisa Casati Stampa di Soncino, created by renowned artist Sir Jacob Epstein in 1918.

Casati was known for her eccentricities, parading with a pair of leashed cheetahs and wearing live snakes as jewellery. She was muse to Jean Cocteau, Cecil Beaton and the Italian Futurists, was portrayed by Man Ray and Augustus John (amongst others). Jack Kerouac wrote poems about her, Vivian Leigh and Ingrid Bergman played her on film. After her death (in London, where she was buried wearing leopardskin and false eyelashes, alongside her stuffed Pekinese dog) she inspired collections by Dior and Alexander MacQueen. Her sculpture was presented to the Beecroft by EK Cole – founder of Southend electronics firm ECKO, one of the earliest manufacturers of TV’s and radios.

This was closely followed by photography at the Royal Ulster Academy in Belfast. Here the team captured images of the Diploma Collection, which is made up of donations by Ulster artists on becoming academicians. The first work to be photographed was by the sculptor FE McWilliam a Banbridge born artist who bequeathed his studio and its contents to the people of Northern Ireland. His 1977 sculpture called Lady into Fish, which combines the elegant legs of a woman merging into the head of a fish, was shot first.

Supported by a £2.8 million National Lottery grant, this highly ambitious project focuses on sculpture dating from the last thousand years, held in public collections. All objects – irrespective of condition or perceived quality – are being recorded and most will be photographed, some in 3D.

The first photographic records will appear on the Art UK website in late 2018. Once online, Art UK’s Art Detective network of crowd-sourced expertise will help collections fill in missing information about the sculptures.

The Art UK Sculpture project was launched in June 2017 (and will run until May 2020). The first months of the project have been focused on recruiting and training a large team of Coordinators and Photographers who are working directly with 3,000 public collections across the UK – from the Shetland Islands to the Channel Islands, and from Fermanagh to Lowestoft – to record the sculpture in their care.

The earliest sculptures to be included in the project will be from the 11th century and these early artworks will sit on the Art UK website alongside works by Michelangelo, Rodin, Richard Deacon and Antony Gormley. The project is not confined to western art and will include artworks from across the world, showing that the UK holds a truly global collection of sculpture.

Andrew Ellis, Art UK Director, said “A significant proportion of the UK’s national sculpture collection is not on display and very little of it has been photographed. The process of photographing sculpture can be challenging and the teams will encounter artworks of very different sizes, shapes and materials. Some sculptures will be too large or fragile to move, so will be photographed in situ in stores and galleries. Many public monuments have not been thoroughly catalogued and are at risk of decay or of being lost to public record. That is why it is so vital to undertake this project now.

Ciara Phipps, Curator of the Beecroft Art Gallery says “We are absolutely delighted that this prestigious national arts project is getting underway here in Southend, it’s a great opportunity for us to shine a light on some of the great cultural treasures we have here in Essex.

Denise Ferran, President of the Royal Ulster Academy said “We are absolutely delighted to be one of the first photography sessions in the new Art UK Sculpture project and look forward to many more people becoming aware of the wonderful sculpture we have here in Northern Ireland.

Stories and blogs about the sculpture, sculptors and collections will also be featured on, highlighting the diversity and range of our national sculpture collection. A number of works will be the subject of films made by young people across the UK. Audio descriptions for blind and partially sighted people will also be made for some of the sculptures.

The project’s UK-wide training and volunteering programme – developed in liaison with the Royal Photographic Society – has also started, which is focusing on researching, recording and photographing outdoor public sculpture.

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