Let’s reproduce digitally, online, publicly

We are missing a huge opportunity to cheaply and globally spread pleasure and much else. I am a fan of the digital reproduction of real world artworks, indeed of hardcopy images of every sort, whether 2D or 3D. This piece discusses these issues as applied to maps, paintings, drawings, embroideries, fabrics and – last but by no means least – stained glass windows.  I am drawing attention to our generation’s failure to post online digital images at medium or high resolution a far greater abundance of artwork. I am hoping to encourage publishers and owners of medium- and hi-res images, and curators of real world images, to get behind this sort of work. (Elsewhere I look at the 2D and 3D digital facsimile world of Factum Arte.)

I hope these four case studies may make the points.

(1) Maps: Phaedon vs the UK Ordnance Survey

Phaedon’s Map

Phaedon’s Map: Exploring the world (2017) is a good example of a flawed hardcopy picture book. Even as an intelligent “good read” it fails. Its bulk and weight is the curse of the coffee table tome. Much worse, many of its images of maps are all but useless since they are very small reproductions of quite large maps or charts whose data is so fine-grained that it is unintelligible at so small a scale.

The problem of text and images, and especially the latter, could be rectified in a digital edition which allowed us hi-res versions of the originals. Such files were presumably available to Phaedon’s editors, designers and printers, but are denied to readers of the book. Absent insuperable copyright issues, why not sell a CD or a streamable version of those original files? Or gift the digital version as does the UK Ordnance Survey (see below)?

OS’s maps

The Ordnance Survey offers what should be the standard solution to an ancient problem with maps. A rambler (and even an adventurer) has always been able to buy the sheet version of a map, even f it meant wrestling with it in wind and rain, and peruse it up close. But OS now offer a hi-res download of the sheets (free within the hardcopy price) which gives us the best of both worlds even on a small screen (though not perhaps in the rain). The point being that because of zooming the huge image becomes something one can “cruise”.

(2) Artworks: Google Arts & Culture and Wiki Commons

One can readily reproduce on paper a painting or a map, especially if the originals are fairly small. Similarly, any example of either will have its comfortable viewing distance, determined by the size of the image and the granularity of its detail. However, to appreciate the overall effect of, say, a big Rembrandt one stands at a distance of, say, around five metres. That is, if one wants to appreciate its overall effect. But many of us like to look under the bonnet of a painting: we are conscious that the genius of artistry often consists in an impressionistic sleight of hand. Viewed from a few centimetres the painter’s brush marks are often gorgeous but usually it is wonderfully intriguing how they achieve the required overall effect at the normal viewing distance.

Enter the hi-res digital image. The Google Arts & Culture app allows one to view hi-res images of works or art, and especially to zoom in on them. The bigger the original hardcopy image, the less ideal is a small screen for viewing them in their totality. But zoom in, and one has the lovely experience of “cruising” the artwork (just as Google Earth lets one fly over the face of the earth as though in a light aircraft or via a drone). And one can get up close with those brush strokes. These are “marks”, as the professionals quite properly call them, allowing for the work of heaping and flattening done not only by brushes but also scalpels and palette knives. In important degree, oil paintings, for instance, are 3D works, a point fascinatingly highlighted by Arte Factorum’s 3D digital facsimiles of some famous paintings.

Google’s collection provides great examples of “cruisable” paintings and drawings by Rembrandt, Drurer, Thomas Eakins, and William Nicholson (to name a few of my favourites). But the case applies as well to its presentation of embroidery by Mary Queen of Scots, and fabrics by creators both famous and anonymous. Stitches and weaves can be as mesmerising as brush strokes. (This point is amply made by the V&A’s online presentation of such artefacts.)

Those of us who are resistant to Alphabet’s “Hegemony of Free” commercial strategy for Google would perhaps prefer to use the Wiki  Media/Commons approach, and would presumably need to donate funds towards the Wiki Foundation to help pay for it. After all, there is no such thing as “free”.

Wiki Commons does somethings things better, and some worse, than Google Arts & Culture. Wiki lets one download hi-res images of a wide range of works of art. Wiki, unlike Google’s Art and Culture, has some stained glass windows amongst its offerings. But its searchability and presentation is far less slick than Google’s.

(3) Stained glass

The arguments above apply in spades to stained glass, especially to big windows, but with some twists. Much of the 19th Century stained glass in churches and most of their Old Glass (or Medieval Glass) gives the in situ viewer  a glorious if rather undetailed effect. It is, often, a matter of the painter or maker having produced dozens or hundreds of individual works (portraits of the Holy Family and saints – sometimes heroes – or foliage or landscape) which, collated or collaged, are then viewed at such a distance that each is more or less unintelligible or anyway suboptimal.

Given that the overwhelming majority of images of large scale stained glass windows are available online only in low or medium resolution digital images a large aesthetic opportunity is being missed. After all, stained glass, of all the artistic mediums, is uniquely suited to the luminous back-lit effect of the screen which is a simulacrum for the sky-glass-eyeball-brain light-to-neuron chain which centuries of worshippers experienced.

The case of the Herkenrode stained glass makes the point. Created in the 16th Century in the Low Countries, and moved very early in the 19th Century to Lichfield Cathedral, these huge windows are glorious and enticing. One longs to be allowed to see them close-up. If one could get to the right bit of floor and there was a cherry-picker hoist, it would be possible. Or with similar access and the availability of a Japanese-style tripod step-ladder. Not on the cards of course. Instead, and in the real world of Lichfield cathedral, one has access to a touch-screen display showing a few Herkenrode images from a tiny proportion of the total. Online, there are a very few decent images to tantalise rather than slake one’s curiosity and longing.

In January I bought the definitive 600-page The Stained Glass of Herkenrode Abbey,  by Isabelle Lecocq and Yvette Vanden Bemden, British Academy/Oxford University Press. It is an  account of how Lichdield cathedral came to own, import, and install the glass in the 1800s and restore it between 2010 and 2015. It has a good few smallish before and after restoration images of details of the glass and several which add up to a showing of the whole of the glass (but at an even more reduced scale). Its scholarship and photographs make it worthwhile to an obsessive such as me.  As in the case of the Phaedon map book, it is extremely likely that there are hi-res images of the book’s illustrations and many which didn’t get printed and it would be great if they were made available online, even if behind a pay-wall. But maybe a public domain argument opens up: it may be that state authorities or semi-public bodies in one form or another paid for the restoration and photography involved and to that extent perhaps these are candidates for ArtUK involvement. Or maybe our focus should be on channelling funds from digital images toward the voluntarty sector or the church authorities that are vital to the preservation of these lovely things.

Nearly every square foot of these massive works is a thing of beauty. We are the first generation to have the technology to view these works (and thousands of others) at home or anywhere and with the virtual proximity they deserve, and yet – for now – they remain out of reach, even to the committed pilgrim, as they always have been.

(4) Philip Hoare’s Dürer and the Whale

This very readable and handy book a good case study, reinforcing the issues raised by Phaedon’s Map and offering a solution. At Hoare’s page 61, for instance, there is a reproduction (quite small, naturally) of Drurer’s “Knight, Death and Devil” (1531). It’s at medium resolution in Google Arts & Culture but much higher at WikiMedia.org.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Publication date

11 May 2022


On art; On books