from Alexandra Franklin (Bodleian) & Giles Bergel (Engineering)
re-blogged and updated from the Bodleian Ballads blog, 2012
2021: Updating the discovery of detachable woodblock hats in Bodleian broadside ballads, we’ve had a printing block made with the detachable hat, and a matching hat for the woman pictured on the same ballad sheet, ‘Unconstant Phillis’.
The idea of applying image-matching software to the illustrations within the broadside ballad collection occurred to Giles Bergel in 2011. Under a John Fell Foundation-funded pilot project in that year Dr Bergel, in partnership with the Bodleian Library, asked Professor Andrew Zisserman of the Visual Geometry Group at Oxford to test their pioneering technology on a sample of broadside ballads.
The first step was to obtain high-quality images. A sample of 800 ballads dating from the seventeenth century was chosen: this was the period when ballads were most typically illustrated, with a combination of commissioned and stock images. Photography, carried-out by the Bodleian’s Imaging Services studio, was funded with a grant from the John Fell Fund. High-quality colour images (600 DPI, 24-bit) were the result: these are now mounted within the current Ballads database and replace some of the older, lower-quality bitonal images which the Bodleian is hoping to fully replace.
Relja Arandjelovic at the Visual Geometry Group processed the new images and built a test site to demonstrate the image matching. The results were impressive: the pilot proved that software can match woodcut images on multiple printings, in varying conditions. The software, still under development, will be migrated to a new Bodleian Broadside Ballads interface under the current JISC-funded project.
What does “image match” offer to researchers?
Researchers working with ballads quickly notice that the same or similar woodblock-printed illustrations appear on multiple broadsides. The same hand-holding couple appears time and again on ballads of love; the same ships decorate songs of naval battles; the same cityscape appears, surprisingly, in ballads about London and Troy. And sometimes the same illustrations appeared in early modern English books and pamphlets, too. (See A guide to English illustrated books, 1536-1603, by Ruth Samson Luborsky and Elizabeth Ingram).
The repetition of generic illustrations in this way is often derided as evidence of ballads’ lowly status, but (as well as providing evidence for popular iconography), for early-modern bibliographic detectives, the re-use of woodblocks provides evidence for the date of a ballad’s printing: deterioration of a woodblock might be a way to establish a timeline of broadsides that share the same illustration.
But there are other questions to be answered, sometimes questions we didn’t even know we needed to ask, which could be answered by selection portions of woodcut printed images: like, ‘Where DID you get that hat?’