Picture Perfect Business

Bridgeman's founder Harriet Bridgeman was recently interviewed for the German newspaper, Die Zeit, read the full, translated article below.



Harriet Bridgeman sells the rights of famous pictures. Now, museum visitors and their mobile phones are getting in the way. 

One can encounter Harriet Bridgeman’s life’s work on a daily basis. On the t-shirt that shows the melting dials of Salvador Dali’s watches. On the calendar with the photos of the “Summer of Love” in a blissfully hippie San Francisco, 1967. On bestsellers such as Donna Tartt’s the Goldfinch, whose covers are adorned with artworks. On the birthday card with Gustav Klimt’s Golden Woman. In small print, on the back, it says: Bridgeman Art Library.

Harriet Bridgeman has her finger in many pies. One expects: a sort of global player with flashy headquarters. And then one finds oneself in a London side street, off classy Notting Hill. A three-storey office building, on the ground floor probably the most well-stocked treasure chamber in the world. Inside, the visitor stumbles across a collection of slightly run-down desks, computers, and that’s it.  Is this the wrong door?

“Hello, I am Harriet.” Lady Harriet Bridgeman is 75 years old, and she is clearly the boss around here. Two things about her stand out. Her imposing nose, and her amused glance that says: Sure, I was made “Commander of the British Empire” by the Queen once, but relax, darling, that doesn’t make any difference. The eyes, more a Monet-blue than an Yves-Klein blue. Her hair dyed an ashy blonde. With black tights and a dark blue boucle frock, she paces through her modest headquarters. Here she asks colleague Peter about a conference, which will be about a collaboration with Google, there she checks in if the request of the Mellon Collection at Yale can be settled. Everything in a totally un-bossy way, underpinned with authority.


She gives out licences for more than three million artworks.

Bridgeman’s metier is the hunger for images, a long established global industry. Art - whether it’s oil painting, drawing or lithography - is subject to the protection of intellectual property. That means, nobody can copy, print, upload or alter it without permission. Bridgeman’s company, the Bridgeman Art Library, has dealt in images and the right to use them for 45 years. She gives out licences for more than three million artworks from around the world. However this business has long outgrown the field of art alone. Bridgeman’s archive holds around 750,000 historical records, such as photos related to the historical, literary and social past as well as film material for documentaries and series. Magazines, book publishers, research institutions and even the screenwriters of Pirates of the Caribbean lose themselves in Bridgeman’s service on London’s Garway Road. 

Quickly listening into what’s been asked today: Someone would like to know in which museums the different versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream are kept. 65 years ago The Old Man and the Sea was published - do you have pictures of Hemingway on a boat? Hundred years Russian Revolution. 8 March 1917: we’re looking for a poster with a Lenin-figure, but in red please. It’s all there and it’s found easily, thanks to a perfectly indexed digital database.

Bridgeman points to mile-high metal cupboards with transparencies. It’s the historical beginning of the business, technologically long surpassed. Nowadays transparencies are only asked for in exceptional cases, for specialist catalogues for example, or billboards for advertising, which require an especially refined rendition. 

In Bridgeman’s tiny office you won’t find silver tea pots or mahogany, or ancestral portraits. Instead Lady Harriet surrounds herself with part of her own art collection, including framed underpants painted by the artist Peter Blake, and an artwork by Vanessa Bell, the sister of Virginia Woolf, who belonged to a legendary crowd of literati, artists and intellectuals. “I admire the artists of the Bloomsbury Group” says Bridgeman. Conceptual or abstract art on the other hand aren’t really what she collects. “But I do support artists like Maggi Hambling, who recently had an exhibition at the British Museum.” Within a few minutes Bridgeman has given the impression that she is friends with all the British artists that have been prominent in recent times. And that an original possesses a different aura than a reproduction is nowhere as obvious as here, in this archive that runs on reproducing art by the millions. 

But how on earth could the “noble daughter” Victoria Harriet Lucy Turton (her maiden name), who was homeschooled, become an entrepeneur? 

That she studied History of Art was typical for girls of her milieu. More unusual is that she later ended up with a conservative women’s magazine called The Lady. Sir John Rothenstein, a former director of London’s Tate Gallery, hired Harriet for the highly regarded weekly art monograph The Masters as deputy Art history editor in monthly instalments. “I was really very lucky to land this job. Editor-in-chief Sir John knew them all - artists, collectors, museums directors.” But this idea wouldn’t last forever - after 100 editions it came to an end. Junior editor Bridgeman had proved to be so capable, that she was encouraged to conceive a new magazine: Discovering Antiques. The magazine jolted perfectly into the climate of the seventies, when the British art market boomed. Laymen and collectors alike were dying to find out how auctions functioned and which markets were on the rise. They wanted to understand how price and value were connected, how deals were made. Furniture, glass, coins, silver and oriental antiquities - everything was in demand. 


She entices museums with a tempting deal: the revenue is split 50:50.

However, the search for suitable images for the magazine proved challenging. The theme cries out for inviting, luscious pictures of polished furniture, old silver, shiny oil paintings. Where to source these, quickly, week after week? There was practically nothing. “It was unbelievably frustrating”, Bridgeman remembers, “Even museums such as the Tate Gallery didn’t have efficient photography departments. Whoever needed to produce professional visual material had to pay to send in a professional photographer to photograph the artworks, outside of opening hours and pay for an attendant.” And would get suspicious looks from museum curators, who grumbled that colour reproductions were never true to the original. A sigh of disbelief accompanies Lady Harriet’s memory of those years. A bewilderment which, in 1972, gave the starting signal for the Bridgeman Art Library. Bridgeman started her firm as a home office with 16 employees, in the midst of vibrant Chelsea. In the basement the photography department, the editorial department under the roof, and if one of Lady Harriet’s sons, who had been born in the meantime, tumbled down the stairs, there were enough picture editors to catch him. Those looking for pictures of key artworks didn’t have to scour museums anymore, but found excellent quality material with Bridgeman. A former Penguin publishing executive remembers: “It used to be a nightmare to find a suitable artwork for a book cover. Where does one begin to look? Bridgeman’s collections and archive saved our lives, really.” Bridgeman herself travelled a lot, first through the country, then through half of Europe, and with charm, guts and anecdotes she convinced the directors of big, small and the smallest museums of her business idea. They would contractually leave the image rights and their sales to Bridgeman - with an enticing clause: we split the revenue from the image sales 50:50. Each quarter, they would from then on receive a cheque from the Bridgeman Art Library. That they could earn money from their property so easily surprised the museum directors. Later something like this would be referred to as a win-win situation. Bridgeman travelled to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, to the Uffizi in Florence, to Dresden, Mexico, the USA. The archive, already digitalised in the mid-nineties, grew, and so, presumably, did the profits, about which Bridgeman has still remained tight-lipped. She’d rather, in the quick dialect of her class, share a few curious stories. 

It’s silly only, that in the meantime museum visitors are allowed to snap away as much as their Smartphone’s memory can contain. What does a rights-trader like Bridgeman have to say about this? “The decision to allow visitors to take photos, I believe is wrong. Museums do still want to make money.” Pictures that remain inside the smartphone and are used privately, have no restrictions whatsoever. For commercial use licences need to be paid. However for this the licensor has to retain the power over the digital distribution of the images. “Unauthorised use is difficult to control”, Bridgeman says. Awful. And so Bridgeman’s colleagues plough through magazines, websites and blogs, to detect copyright infringement and confront the offender. “We try to protect the interests of museums and artists”, Bridgeman says. She is a member of the British Copyright Council, a group that protects intellectual property, and she believes that rights-piracy is also facilitated by Google and Wikipedia. The first court trials already revolve around the question: does he or she who downloads an image file from a museum website and uses it for other purposes, deserve to be punished? So far the rights of the licensor and seller have mostly been validated. There is uncertainty whether it will stay that way. Brexit might complicate the situation even further - because also Copyright British law and EU-regulations could clash. Last year Bridgeman voted to leave the EU. Great Britain should take control again. Speaking of control: Lady Harriet herself will soon leave the business in the hands of daughter-in-law Victoria. It’s a family affair.


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Read the original article in German

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