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Art of the Lindisfarne Gospels

2014 October 7

Here is a detail of the Lindisfarne Gospels, re-drawn by me for my upcoming book Cotton’s Library. I also have a high-resolution version. You can do whatever you like with these images!

Drawing of part of the Lindisfarne Gospels

A small detail from (where else) the Gospel of Matthew

Now for details and other notes…

The Lindisfarne Gospels are a magnificent illuminated manuscript, created in medieval England. For the past four centuries, the book has been part of the Cotton library, which is today a part of The British Library in London. For a bit more about the book of Lindisfarne and much more about the Cotton library, I encourage you once again to have a look at my book. 🙂

The above image is a pencil drawing I made of part of the manuscript. It was certainly an enlightening experience. The complexity of reproducing just this small section of one page, in monochrome, from a model, really brought home the artistry of master illuminators. Astonishing.

That said, my original motivation for doing this had nothing to do with art appreciation, drawing practice, or even converting a color image for reproduction in a black and white book. The British Library’s web site hosts high-res images of the entire manuscript—I used one of them for my reference—and I could have made any of them into perfectly serviceable grayscale images with Photoshop. Except they claim exclusive intellectual property rights to their digital photos of a centuries-old manuscript, despite the fact that they are a public institution.

This goes for much of the art that I wanted to use in Cotton’s Library, moreover. Britain’s museums and galleries seem firmly stuck in the “claim copyright, restrict use, and charge tolls” era, even for documents created more than a thousand years ago. “Public domain, what’s that?”

It’s worth noting that these institutions’ claims are as dubious legally as they are ethically. US courts have ruled that faithful reproductions of public domain works are not eligible for copyright protection, and when even our legal system won’t back up intellectual property claimants you know the relevant claims have to be a serious reach. Still, from what I have been able to determine, there is no equivalent ruling or law for Britain, right now. So, arguably, the claims of the British Library et al. are valid until authorities declare otherwise.

Faced with this, I had three obvious options, really. One, pay the tolls. Two, hoist the Jolly Roger and swipe the images from the web. Three, do without.

After my experiences with Brilliant Deduction, I was not going to sink a small fortune into image rights fees, particularly for a book that is largely a celebration of the two institutions holding most of the images I wanted. I try hard to respect sources in Cotton’s Library, meanwhile, so I did not want to blow off the terms of the British Library even if I do think they’re absurd. I might simply have done without much artwork for my book, and nursed a fine case of spite…

But then, I realized that I could enjoy an act of spite and have the images I wanted. I could draw my own copies.

Why not, right? I am, after all, a practicing visual artist. I did spend four years at evil Design College, thank you very much. I am by no means a great illustrator, but I managed U.S. Grant. I could manage this. I believe that I have, too. I have also, I hope, raised a finger (or two, that British audiences might better appreciate the gesture) at the notion of “sharing” these images but restricting re-use. Kindly put that in your pipe and smoke it, toll-collectors.

More images will follow; I will be releasing those as I’m releasing the images in this post under the WTF Public License. Which means, again, you can just do what you want with them.


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