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Picture Perfect: Lady Harriet Bridgeman

Founded in 1972 by Lady Harriet Bridgeman, the Bridgeman Library facilitates the legal use of an image for a variety of purposes – its licensing arrangements covering all things from Penguin books to the framed “Waterlilies” seen in Titanic.

Lady Bridgeman, who is a Trinity Graduate and one of this year’s recipients of the 2010 Alumni Awards, came up with the idea while in magazine publishing, when she realised the difficulty of getting hold of illustrations in time to meet weekly deadlines. The Library, according to Bridgeman, meant that museums and organisations gained “greater control, because the pictures became their property and they could hold onto them and charge for re-use”.

Before this, every use of an image by different publications might have required them to be photographed again – which “wasn’t good for the pictures” and likewise was not a good use of gallery resources, with staff having to go on duty when the photographer called after hours to re-photograph. “So it was really, as one of the museum directors at the time said, a win-win situation, because we gave them fifty-per-cent of any money we made, and we marketed and distributed their images in a way that they couldn’t themselves. Also, building up a large database meant people were much more likely to come to us and use an image from us when they had a wider choice, than they were to go to a museum”, where it might not have been so clear which images were available, as “there weren’t many illustrated catalogues then – people couldn’t afford them and they were difficult to get a hold of”. Bridgman says that this is of particular importance in publishing, as “a lot of book editors have no idea what they want for their front covers… you have to see an image to feel what is going to work for the book, and you can’t really think of an image in the abstract.” Any design-based decisions probably benefit enormously from a good browse around, and the choice presented in an ever-amassing collection of readily-available images must have been far less daunting than the variety one might encounter by travelling huge distances or attempting to investigate the protected recesses of museum storage rooms.

A great deal of that sort of exploring has been done by Bridgeman herself, who photographed or arranged the photography where very few works had been captured on camera before, particularly in the countries that were “behind the Iron Curtain”. It has also enabled her to make discoveries – “it’s an opportunity to go to a country where you know there’s going to be some good art but you don’t know what it is, for example in Estonia the National Gallery has some good things, or Cuba has some wonderful paintings. Wherever you go you’re likely to fall across something that you have no idea about, and also to see things which connect which in the old days, before computers, was extraordinary serendipity. I remember being in the National Gallery in South Africa and seeing a sketch of a painting that we had just acquired from Manchester City Art Gallery, an oil by a pre-Raphaelite artist, but in those days there was no way anyone could see what was where, and couldn’t make those sort of connections. There used to often be advertisements in museum journals, saying ‘I’m putting together an exhibition of so-and-so, could anyone please advise me of the whereabouts of his paintings – well nowadays, with Wikipedia and Google and all the other advantages brought about by the internet, this isn’t a problem, but it was a real problem in the old days”.

The increased digitisation of art has, in Bridgeman’s view, “got an enormous amount of pluses”, with the fact that “art is reaching many more people on account of this wider distribution, which must be a good thing.” On the other hand, however, is the fact that there is an “increase in piracy”, and “lack of control”. Proper licensing and legal distribution of images is important for getting funding to museums and galleries – in order to help with the conservation and exhibition of the original works – and it also means that the “owner or creator [of the original work] can maintain control over what it is they own or have created”.

The Library’s efforts to seek out particular images is largely driven by demand on the part of publishing companies – which comprise over 60-per-cent of their business, as well as cards, calendars, stationery, and television. Region is also a determining factor, with increasing demand for African-American and Hispano-American material in the United States, for example, expanding the holding of the Bridgeman Library’s New York office. Opportunities arise, such as the Library’s recent signing up of the British Royal Collection, and different phases of taste determine things. The Library has a growing collection of photography, which Bridgeman calls “a fascinating social chronicle of history”, and so the Library does not limit itself to art photography, but has extended into history and culture as well. They also “supply a lot to films, because obviously you can’t borrow genuine oil paintings”; these are “pretty accurate reproductions” that are usually very much part of the background, but are also seen on art programs on the BBC.

Certainly, from our generation’s viewpoint – where images are instantaneously duplicated, downloaded, tagged, altered, parodied, cropped, enlarged, compressed – we see a landscape completely unlike the one that inspired the Bridgeman Library. “I think it’s interesting”, says Bridgeman, “to the extent that one never quite thinks about how people get hold of paintings – you see somebody wearing a t-shirt with a Salvador Dalí image on it and you don’t realise that you have actually to go get the image itself in the first place, to make it happen.”

Published for Trinity News, October 2010

Line drawing by Cat O'Shea, colour by Aoife Crowley

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