Culture: Artistic Exercise in Democracy; Visual Arts Terry Grimley Takes a Stroll through the Complete Public Art Collections of Staffordshire, Courtesy of the Public Catalogue Foundation

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Byline: Terry Grimley

The amazing lottery-funded project by the Public Catalogue Foundation to publish a fully illustrated catalogue of all the oil paintings in Britain's public art collections has so far produced two volumes for the West Midlands.

Back in April I reviewed the Birmingham catalogue, and now I have been catching up with the previous volume dedicated to Staffordshire. A single volume for the West Midlands Metropolitan County would presumably have been too unwieldy, so the PCF has chosen to ignore it and work instead to old-fashioned county borders.

This means that Walsall, Sandwell and Wolverhampton, all officially now part of West Midlands, have been restored to Staffordshire alongside Lichfield and the Potteries. Coventry and Dudley, also part of West Midlands, must presumably wait for future volumes devoted to Warwickshire and Worcestershire respectively.

Compared to Birmingham, where the combination of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts provides a substantial body of old master and international art of national importance, Staffordshire's collections have a much more parochial feeling.

In fact, the international dimension is almost exclusively focused on the two metropolitan collections of Walsall and Wolverhampton. In the former case it was the gift of the Garman-Ryan Collection in 1972 which provided such foreign gems as the early portrait by Degas of his sister or Robert Delaunay's 1918 portrait of Stravinsky.

At Wolverhampton, the Pop Art collection introduced an American contingent which is extremely rare in British public collections outside London - although as it happens most of these are in media other than oil (or acrylic, which is also covered in these catalogues), so that Roy Lichtenstein's Purist Painting with Bottles, said to be one of the artist's favourites among his own paintings, stands in splendid isolation.

Increasingly, Wolverhampton's lively post-1970s tradition of collecting contemporary art has focused on photography rather than painting, and as a general observation it is striking how poorly represented the main trends in later 20th century British painting are in these collections, particularly since the 1960s.

In total there are 2,500 paintings in this volume, from 34 diverse collections across Staffordshire. The big three collections are Walsall, Wolverhampton and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, while the smallest include Leek Town Council and Erasmus Darwin House, with just one and four paintings each.

The regular PCF format is to illustrate each painting in colour to the same small standard size, with outstanding works pulled out for additional full-page treatment.

It's an unfamiliar way of looking at museum collections where, as everyone knows, there is usually only room for a fraction of the works to be on public display and a significant proportion are of such indifferent quality that they are unlikely ever to leave the storerooms.

Here, this state of affairs is replaced by a ruthless democracy in which everything in a particular collection is given equal prominence in alphabetical order.

Any narrative which curators might wish to impose on their best works is erased, and you can study the strength and weaknesses of public art collecting across Staffordshire in intricate detail, without leaving your armchair.

In the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, where paintings play a secondary role to the nationally important ceramics collection, it's apparent that the main strength lies in British artists from the first half of the 20th century.

In fact, the biggest single discovery for me in this catalogue was the work of John Currie (1883-1914), a Staffordshire-born artist who worked as a designer for Mintons as a teenager and then became part of the dazzling generation of young modernists who studied at the Slade School in the years just before the First World War. …