Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians


Our earliest map appears on a coin made in the Roman Empire and our latest appears as pixels on a computer screen. In between we have the most complete set of Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain, the grand collection of an 18th-century king, secret maps made by the Soviet army as well as the British government, and a book that stands taller than the average person. Read more

16 November 2015

A Glance – from a Safe Distance – at the Human Monsters on Pierre Desceliers’ World Map of 1550

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 In 1550 the Norman cartographer Pierre Desceliers made a large world map (135 × 215 cm, 4.4 × 7 feet) which had been commissioned as a gift for King Henry II. This gift was intended to help rehabilitate the career of one of Henry’s ministers who had fallen out of favour, and no expense was spared in its decoration. In fact, as Henry already owned a large world map by Desceliers, it is likely that a team of artists was recruited specifically to decorate the map at a higher artistic level than the earlier map. As a result, the 1550 map is one of the most beautiful to have survived from the Renaissance, and as part of its elaborate hand-painted decoration, there is a rich program of illustrations of human monsters.

Add_ms_24065Pierre Desceliers, [world map or planisphere]. Arques, Normandy, 1550. British Library Add.MS 24065.  Publicdomain


Publicdomain Cynocephalus in northern Asia—the one from Section 5 of the map

Near the northern coast of Asia – a coast depicted in a style that Desceliers reserves for shores that are poorly known – there is a cynocephalus or dog-headed man, and beside him the words hommes monstruces, “monstrous men.” To his left there is text that indicates that this is the Region of Darkness, where the people live like beasts, without morals or manners, without light for half the year, and conduct a brisk trade in furs. The image of the monstrous cynocephalus seems intended to symbolize the wild and dangerous nature of this whole region at the northern edge of the world.


Publicdomain The siren and ship from Section 32

In the ocean off the southern coast of Africa swims a siren holding an elaborate mirror in one hand in which she admires herself, and a comb in the other. Both objects symbolize beauty but also vanity. To her right there is a ship, and the water beneath the ship is painted in a different color, and also in a different style, than that beneath the siren. This difference shows that different artists were hired to paint the monsters and the ships on Desceliers’ map, an interesting insight into his workshop.


Publicdomain The Patagonian giants from Section 30

At the southern tip of South America there is an image of two Patagonian giants. It was Antonio Pigafetta, in his account of Magellan’s voyage around the world, who had first reported giants in this area, and they are depicted on several earlier maps. However, the artist whom Desceliers hired went a step further than others in emphasizing the giants’ monstrosity by giving them – strangely – the feet of birds.


Publicdomain  The two monstrous races in the center of Africa from Section 25

In the centre of Africa, which in European accounts was often held to be the home of monsters and other exotica, two monstrous races of men are depicted. One is a blemmyae, a man with his face on his chest, but this is a cyclopoid blemmyae, with only one eye instead of two. To his right is a man with six arms. Earlier cartographers had located cyclopoid blemmyae in Africa, but the six-armed man seems to be an addition to the monsters of this area by Desceliers or the artist he had hired.


Publicdomain The cynocephali cannibals from Section 34

And finally, in the map’s huge hypothetical southern continent there is another image of cynocephali or dog-headed people. These are cannibal cynocephali, for they are butchering one of their own, evidently to eat him. The image is all the more shocking for its combination of brutal behavior and dog-like faces with European clothing. This grisly scene is based on Marco Polo’s description of the Andaman Islanders, which is cited just to the right.

The decorative program on Desceliers’ map includes cities and sovereigns, non-monstrous animals and peoples, ships, mountains, vegetation, coats of arms, and elaborate compass roses. I hope that this brief look at some of the monsters will inspire further examination of the map in my book The World for a King: Pierre Desceliers’ Map of 1550.

Chet Van Duzer.


10 November 2015

Putting yourself on the (old) map

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Most of you know the British Library and a dedicated group of volunteers have, for the last few years, been plugging away at georeferencing maps from across the Library’s collections. The most recent, and rather large, set of maps has been carved out of the cache of Library images held on Flickr and now our volunteers are working their way through over 50,000 maps in need of georeferencing. Thanks to the work of our dedicated georeferencers things are progressing well, with over 9,000 maps referenced so far but for those of you interested in getting involved there are still plenty of opportunities for you to do so.

Above: the geographical spread of the maps georeferenced so far.

As you can see above, the georeferencing done so far has already dealt with maps from an impressively wide geographical area. In fact, there are now so many maps available I'm going through them and picking out some that strike me as particularly interesting. The below map of the expedition of Baron Adolf Eric Nordenskiӧld into the interior of Greenland is from a publication about his 1883 trek to understand more about the continent, it's also one of my favorites from the current georeferenced batch. The map almost made it into the Library’s recent Lines in the Ice exhibition as Nordenskiӧld encountered what he thought was a new mineral, Kryokonite, but which turned out to be coal dust deposited by snow. In short, Nordenskiӧld found some of the earliest evidence of the global circulation of pollutants – he just didn’t know it yet.

Nordenskiold in Greenland

Above: map of Baron Adolf Eric Nordenskiӧld’s 1883 Greenland expedition. See in Georeferencer.

For completely different reasons I’m also very keen on the two following maps, depicting late nineteenth century Niagara Falls (both sides) and Melbourne at a similar time. It’s not so much the content of the original maps as their situation on the contemporary Google Map which interests me here as both now form small parts of sprawling urbanised areas. Niagara Falls has not developed in the same manner as Melbourne, which grew explosively in the late twentieth century, but both maps and their background say a lot about twentieth century urban development.

Niagara Falls

Above: Niagara Falls, Canada and U. S. A., published 1886. See in Georeferencer.


Above: Melbourne, Australia, published 1888. See in Georeferencer.

It is these sorts of historical nuggets and contemporary juxtapositions which make the BL Georeferencer so interesting and if this whets your appetite to get involved I have good news, there are still plenty of maps left to work with. You can find out more about the process of signing up and working with the material here. Another gem to come out of the work of our volunteers’ work is the availability of these maps through the wonderful Old Maps Online. This has been available through a web browser for some time but it now comes to you in a mobile phone app too.                                    

There is more information about the app and its uses via this press release from the Old Maps Online team and it is well worth a read. For the purpose of this blog the most pertinent thing to point out is that the maps you reference from the current cache of material will also be available, in the palm of your hand, through this app. The bonus feature of the Old Maps Online app is that you can now find maps about where you are, wherever you are, so long as you have your phone, a signal and (especially if you are outside of your home country) a suitable mobile data package.

This means that if you go for a walk, say, on the Downs of Kent you can open the app and see georeferenced material about your location originating from the British Library, and other institutions who have taken part in the project. All this while stood in a field, a bog, a forest or a town. Have a go, it really is great fun.

[Phil Hatfield]

03 November 2015

Magnificent Maps of New York

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The British Library’s ongoing project to catalogue and digitise the King’s Topographical Collection, some 40,000 maps, prints and drawings collected by George III, has highlighted some extraordinary treasures.  The improved and up-dated catalogue records are now accessible to all, anywhere in the world, via the Library’s catalogue, Explore, and offer a springboard for enhanced study. 

Your donations to this and other projects enable us to digitise more of our collections, the results of which are invaluable.  One such example of further research using material digitised with help from donors is the recently published book by Richard H. Brown and Paul E. Cohen, Revolution. Mapping the Road to American Independence, 1755-1783, which features a number of maps from the K.Top.

Bernard Ratzer, PLAN of the CITY of NEW YORK, in North America Surveyed in the Years 1766 & 1767. [London: about 1770]. Copperplate engraving with hand colour. Maps K.Top.121.36.b.

This magnificent engraved map of New York was, prior to the current project, listed on one catalogue record with another map.  The original 1829 catalogue description called this map simply “Another Copy of ditto. A Roll” where ditto (actually Maps K.Top.121.36.a., a second edition of the map) was described, not incorrectly, as "A Plan of the City of New York and its Environs, surveyed and laid down by Lieut. B. Ratzer, 1766, 7, with a View of ditto; published by Jefferys and Faden, 1776. Two sheets".  However, the two maps are not the same and are deserving of separate listings.

Firstly, Maps K.Top.121.36.b. displays fine hand colour, while the other remains black and white, and this colour supports the theory that this particular example of map may have been made for presentation to George III; such careful and expensive embellishment may not have been offered to all.

In addition, Maps K.Top.121.36.b. is an example of the first state of the map, one of seemingly only four known examples of this first state, published in about 1770.  The first state can be identified by the lack of publishers’ imprint; thus the names Jefferys and Faden do not appear here as they do on the second state.  Although the map’s existence as a first state had been known to scholars for some time (it was listed by W. P. Cumming in his article ‘The Montresor‐Ratzer‐Sauthier sequence of maps of New York City, 1766–76’ in Imago Mundi in 1979 and then featured in subsequent works), this information was not reflected in the catalogue record.  The current project has remedied this fact; a correct date of publication is given for the map and the catalogue record now also cites important references to the map.

Tracking down other examples of the first state of the map has been a complicated part of the cataloguing process.

Cumming in Imago Mundi lists examples of the first state of the map held by the British Library, Alnwick Castle being the seat of the Duke of Northumberland, and the New York State Library at Albany.

Cohen and Robert Augustyn in their book, Manhattan in Maps 1527-1995, and Margaret Pritchard and Henry Taliaferro in their book, Degrees of Latitude. Mapping Colonial America (both of which reference an earlier work by Gloria-Gilda Deak, Picturing America 1497-1899 : prints, maps, and drawings bearing on the New World discoveries and on the development of the territory that is now the United States,) list only two known copies of the first state; at the British Library and the New York Historical Society.

A New York Times article by Michael Wilson entitled “Cunning, Care and Sheer Luck Save Rare Map” and published on January 11th 2011 refers to two copies of the first state of the map at the New York Historical Society (and the Society’s catalogue seems to confirm this by listing M36.1.3A and M36.1.3B as separate items) and one further example of the first state newly discovered, at the time of the article, at the Brooklyn Historical Society, in addition to the British Library example.

This seems to make six examples in total.

However, on closer inspection the New York State Library at Albany example is an 1873 copy by Robert Cochrane Bacot, published by Murphy and Bechtel, taking the known copies back down to five.  Then, the Alnwick example cited by Cumming may not actually be a first state of the map but rather a second; an example (incomplete) of the second state of the map with Percy family provenance was sold in recent years.  Hence, the conclusion of four known copies of the first state.

Why are these editions and dates of publication significant?  Well, in the case of this map, the 1770 date of the first edition places publication before the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War thus, as explained by Brown and Cohen, the smoke in the view beneath the map cannot relate to the Great Fire of New York of 1776 because it quite simply hadn’t happened yet.  With the commencement of war in 1776, demand for such a map was greater and more examples of the second state, published to meet that demand, have survived.

The attribution of the 1770 date of the first edition is based on a New-York Gazette advertisement for the map in October that year, which is referenced by Pritchard and Taliaferro. 

Another K.Top map to feature in Brown and Cohen’s book is a manuscript map of Albany by Thomas Sowers.  With Thomas Sowers’s name and the date, 1756, given in the elaborate key at upper left this map’s military context is that of the French and Indian War.  The map shows the position of the troops of "Major General Braddock", "Sir Peter Halkett" and "Colonel Dunbars" and is cited by Brown and Cohen as “the first to show Albany during this war”.

Thomas Sowers, PLAN, of the CITY, of ALBANY, in the PROVINCE, of, NEW, YORK. 1756. Manuscript pen and ink with wash colour. Maps K.Top.121.41.

The K.Top cataloguing and digitisation is ongoing thanks to the support of valued donors.  For further information about contributing to this exciting project please visit our website.

Kate Marshall