Capturing and exploring texture

The vast collection of The National Archives includes nearly 3 million ‘ornamental’ and ‘useful’ designs, registered by the Board of Trade Representations and Registers of Designs, between 1839 and 1991. The BT Design Register, as it is commonly known, aimed to foster design innovation; put simply, registration gave copyright protection to the designs.

Many classes of materials and products were registered, including metal, wood, glass, earthenware, paper hangings (wall paper), carpets, and six classes of textiles including shawls and lace. The representations of the designs take many forms: drawings, tracings, photographs, small samples of the products, as well as whole artefacts, e.g. embossed envelopes, straw bonnets, collars, gloves and printed cotton handkerchiefs.

We are considering options for making this huge collection more accessible while ensuring its long-term preservation. Online delivery is one option, and we’re looking at ways to convey the three-dimensional, textured surface of some representations. With the help of colleagues at the University of Southampton, we’ve used a novel image capture and processing technique which allows the user to ‘relight’ the on-screen ‘object’. It provides a pro-active experience of examination, as you can direct the lighting where you want it. When combined with a zoom facility, it provides a useful and engaging mode of investigation. It’s particularly helpful for inspecting monochrome, textured surfaces, as we hope the following examples will demonstrate. We welcome your feedback.

Viewing these images requires Java.

Click and drag on the images to redirect the lighting. Right-click for more options.

[rti src=”wp-content/uploads/2013/04/BT43_57_1912_cropped_545.ptm” width=”545″ height=”511″]

BT 43/57/1912:  Imprint of the Seal of the Registrar of Designs (embossed on a design for a horse brush registered on 7 October 1842)


[rti src=”wp-content/uploads/2013/04/BT43_57_71976_cropped_545.ptm” width=”544″ height=”617″]

BT 43/57/71976: Straw hat, registered on 18 September 1850; proprietor unknown

Download the software

For the full experience, including the ability to zoom, you can download the RTI Viewer software, available from, then explore the original high-resolution files by right-clicking these links, saving the images to your desktop, and opening them in the RTI Viewer: Registrar’s seal (11Mb), Straw hat (48Mb).

This image capture and processing technique is called Polynomial Texture Mapping (PTM) and is one application of Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI).

See the following publications for more information:

  • Goskar, T. A. & Earl, G. P. (2010) Polynomial texture mapping for archaeologists. ‘British Archaeology’ 111: 28-31.
    Available as PDF
  • Earl, G., Martinez, K. and Malzbender, T. (2010) Archaeological applications of polynomial texture mapping: analysis, conservation and representation. ‘Journal of Archaeological Science’ 37 (11pp).
    Available as PDF

Acknowledgements: Dr Graeme Earl, James Miles and colleagues, Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton. Special thanks to Hembo Pagi for his RTI viewer for WordPress plugin. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which supported this imaging via an award for Design On-line: Providing On-line Access to Registers and Representations of Designs in the Board of Trade Design Register (Award holder: Nancy Bell, The National Archives).


  1. Helen Williams says:

    Totally impressed. It makes the image so much clearer. Well done.

  2. Helen Williams says:

    Totally impressed. It makes the image so much clearer. Weldone.

    1. Helen Williams says:

      Sorry about the repeat. There was a delay in posting my comment.

  3. Phoebe Merrick says:

    Has great possibilities for historians and for custodians of ancient buildings.

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