If you don't fancy visiting an art gallery, let it to come to you

Sarah Jane Checkland on the first computerised picture show
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The Independent Online
THE National Gallery has already been captured on CD. The Louvre is accessible on the Internet. Now, with the launch of the first British contemporary art gallery on the World Wide Web, the people who collect paintings need never leave home to make their purchases.

The first show - opening on 14 February to a private view with a potential attendance numbered in the millions - comprises the latest works of Peter Blake, a founding father of Pop Art and now pioneer of the airwaves.

Simply tap in the magical stream of letters and digits, view the works, and place your order. The entire transaction can be done in seconds.

Blake, who is currently Associate Artist at the National Gallery, has produced a series of silk-screen prints inspired by his time there.

For pounds 250 per print, art lovers can buy from the series Madonna on Venice Beach, in which skateboarders and bathers share that chic and crazy stretch of Californian coast with various manifestations of the Madonna - from the demure and devotional creatures which form one third of the National's collection to the muscular singing star who bears that name. The prints show "a magical situation. The viewer can make up his own story," says Blake.

The gallery online is the brainchild of John Fenton, balding and pony- tailed survivor of the Sixties and Seventies rock scene. When Peter Blake designed the famous album cover for the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was Fenton who did the marketing.

Despite his record of enterprise he says it took him 10 years "to get over my Luddite attitude" and embrace the new technology. Now he is messianic on the subject.

Normal galleries, he says, are "restricted by mailing lists; restricted by geography". But the gallery online will be open to everyone on the Internet for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Soon he plans to develop his project into the complete virtual experience: "We will be able to walk into a gallery and walk round the sculptures and paintings to get a better look."

Peter Blake was first choice as guinea-pig as he has always been an "innovator". Although the artist says he is too old to master the new technology himself, he is convinced "the young art world will embrace this" as it is part of their culture. Future exhibitions will include that ageing enfant terrible of the art scene, Bruce McLean, and Terry Frost.

"It could be the most wonderful vehicle for a print dealer like me," says Alan Cristea, the Cork Street dealer who sells Blake's prints. He adds: "If everybody knows it is on the Internet, it will be far better than a published catalogue."

There is no risk of pirates creating fakes from the images, Mr Fenton says; for if they attempt to publish their own print by downloading Blake's Madonnas they will discover that it does not have enough DPI, or dots per inch, to look convincing. "It would look really tacky, like newsprint," he says.

The big question, however, is whether the idea will catch on with collectors. The most sought-after art has always been the province of the elite. And the elite have a tendency to opt for exclusivity, not to mention the red-carpet treatment, enjoying the hospitality they receive from the more traditional dealers.

Back in the art boom of the late Eighties, a company called LaserNet tried to persuade the antiques community to sell over the airwaves using slightly less sophisticated technology. But collectors preferred to come and touch the pieces they were thinking of buying, and dealers were terrified of losing control of their clients. The project fell flat.

That, though, was before the extraordinary potential of the World Wide Web was known. So hurry on down the superhighway to the Peter Blake show on 14 February: the address is http://www.galleryonline.com, and the exhibition lasts for a month.