Pick up any painting from the National Gallery for as little as £10

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The Independent Online

Having offered £21m for a single painting last week, the National Gallery is now making its entire collection available to the public for a tenner each.

The gallery's director, Charles Saumarez Smith, has sanctioned a project to make its collection of 2,300 paintings available in poster format.

The National currently offers a selection of only 50 prints but developments in printing technology will allow visitors to choose a painting and immediately watch it being replicated.

If the gallery succeeds in its offer - aided by £11.5m of National Lottery money - to buy Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks from the Duke of Northumberland, the work will be included in the new service. The painting is currently at the National on loan but could be sold by the Duke to the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The gallery's most popular prints are, predictably, its most famous works: Van Gogh's Sunflowers and A Wheatfield, with Cypresses and Monet's The Water Lily Pond. But the new service will allow it to provide posters of much-demanded paintings by less well-known artists including Gerrit van Honthorst and Paolo Uccello.

From today, 900 paintings will be available as posters. The prints are expected to last 70 years and the entire collection will be available by the start of 2004.

Julie Molloy, the managing director of the National Gallery Company, said the service was "fundamentally important". "We've tried to move with what people want but we really have not been able to offer a wide number of images because commercially it has been unviable to do so," she said.

"We've now created an environment where you can choose a painting and watch it come out."

The National is the first British gallery to scan its entire collection for printing on demand, although the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert museum both offer to make prints from a selection of images. The National will need to seek permission from owners of paintings on long-term loans before those works can be offered in printed format.

Ms Molly said the project became possible through a relationship the gallery has with the computer company Hewlett-Packard.

The computer giant was hired to install a system that enables the gallery to monitor changes to its paintings over time.

The system has enabled paintings to be examined in three dimensions and has provided invaluable insights to restorers and art historians on painters' brush strokes and paint application.

It was during the course of this project that scientists at the gallery helped to develop a studio digital camera called the Marc, which scans a painting directly and has a colour accuracy that is five times greater than any photograph.

The resulting images are the ones that are to be transferred into poster format in three sizes: A4 (£10), A3 (£20) and A2 (£25).