|Rembrandt Reaches the Web
copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
10 November 2007
Three weeks ago, the British Museum quietly
launched its comprehensive website of what it calls flat art:
mostly so far its enormous collection of prints and drawings.
The drawings, 50,000 of them, have all been catalogued; the
prints, by no means. It is hard to say how many of them there
are. There is a collection of a third of a million bookplates
(yet to be tackled, and perhaps a low priority). There are large
untapped resources - for instance, French satirical prints -
which have not been published elsewhere in any form, and will
now become searchable.
The effort goes back a long way. In 1990 a
team of four staff began cataloguing the drawings. It took them
10 years. At present there are on any given day eight people
at work on the online catalogue, plus volunteers. What they
are feeding into the system is not just the subject, author,
dimensions and technical details, but also, where relevant,
the scholarly literature on a given drawing, its full provenance,
who gave it to the museum and when. From any entry you can then
find out, for instance, what is known about the donor of the
object (many of the gifts go back to the 18th century).
If you look up everything under, say, Hockney,
you find a Rembrandt drawing included, on the grounds that Hockney
once waxed lyrical about it. If you look up Rembrandt you will
find prints and drawings made by him, fakes, copies after him,
images of him and so forth. A search for Rembrandt self-portraits
yielded more than 100 prints, but very few drawings (Rembrandt,
it turns out, painted and etched his self-portrait much more
often than he seems to have drawn it).
The website is unrestricted and you can print
off any image. A battle was won before this was allowed to happen,
and the result is that anyone - student, teacher or amateur
- can get hold of a decent A4 reproduction of the drawing or
print they are interested in, for personal use. For scholarly
use, there will shortly be an automatic downloading option that
gives a free image (for use in a scholarly article or book)
of a suitable quality for reproduction. This is going to make
an amazing difference in academic life, and it is part of a
general trend (begun by Mark Jones at the V&A) of public
institutions not charging for educational use of copyright material.
The reason why no official announcement has
yet been made about the BM's new online resource is that, because
it is a large and complex operation, they wanted it up and running,
and tested for glitches, before they advertised its existence.
There are indeed, I noticed, a few minor glitches, and the catalogue
(as I said) is very far from complete. It will be added to,
week by week, as long as funds can be found to continue to build
it up. And on each page you are encouraged to report any mistakes,
or add information that may be relevant.
It is quick and simple to use, although I admit
I have yet to put the advanced search option through its paces.
I looked at Goya and Rembrandt and Michelangelo (all artists
well represented in the collection) before turning to someone
I didn't know much about, to see how useful the site would be.
I chose the draughtsman and print-maker Rodolphe
Bresdin, 1822-1885, an artist with a distinctive and busy style
which tends to cover the whole of a page with detail. He's an
eccentric and unlike anyone else. I've sometimes seen his work
in catalogues, but never read about him. On the website I soon
learn that he spent the latter part of his life in extreme poverty.
Among the visionary landscapes is one called The Comedy of Death,
in which we see a hut on an island, inhabited by two despairing
figures, as the text puts it, surrounded by owls and skeletons
and bats and devils. It's like a 19th-century take on the Temptation
of St Anthony.
It turns out that Bresdin taught Odilon Redon
for several years, and there is a print here in which Redon
shows Bresdin - as if in an etching by Rembrandt - as an old
man with a bushy white beard, sitting reading in a window. Redon's
technique here, like Bresdin's, is to make a lithograph look
like an etching. So now I know something more about Bresdin,
and where to look should I want to pursue the matter. And also,
as an unexpected bonus, I know something more about Redon. And
it was all quick and painless.
Most museums have been keen to produce websites,
but not every museum website is remotely comparable as a research
tool. Mostly, in my experience, one finds that there's a guided
tour of highlights of the collection - no doubt well enough
done, but hardly something to stretch the applications of information
The Ashmolean website, by contrast, hosts a
highly specialised database for numismatists. It is devoted
to Roman provincial coinage, and brings together the collections
of numerous leading coin-rooms. In other words, it is a place
where different museums meet and their collections can be systematically
Much of the Ashmolean collection (all its archaeological
material, for instance) is currently off the site. The back
part of the building is being completely redesigned and rebuilt,
and so the collections were "decanted" into the old
Radcliffe Infirmary. I visited them there recently: it was a
case, literally, of going to visit a museum in hospital. All
the objects had been photographed and bar-coded and now, as
the new displays were being designed and planned for, they were
being conserved in laboratories which had been adapted from
It was a novel experience, rather as it must
have been to visit the National Gallery when it was housed in
a slate quarry in North Wales, during the second world war.
When the new building is complete, and the 20,000 objects are
discharged from hospital, they will also be searchable on the
website. It's a brave new world that has such museums, and such
websites, in it.