THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians

Introduction

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

25 March 2015

Help! British Library needs 50,000+ maps georeferenced

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We have 50,000 maps online that we ask you - the public - to identify the geographical location of.   The BL Georeferencer release is now live at

http://www.bl.uk/maps/

Stockholm1
A plan of the city of Stockholm” published in 1802, overlaid on current Google mapping

Using the BL Georeferencer online application, you will be presented with a historic map from a 19th century book; by finding the location on a modern map or imagery alongside, the old map is “georeferenced”, and can be overlaid and interacted with in your browser (as above).

This is our largest release of maps yet, and will be a formidable task to complete, so any amount of help you can offer us will be gratefully received!

 

11 March 2015

A rum Lot of Maps

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As is to be expected, King George III’s Topographical Collection contains outstanding examples of all the major maps and atlases published in his lifetime and extending back to 1660. Less comprehensively the collection goes back to include Italian maps published in Rome and Venice from 1540.

Brighton

Thomas Yeakell sr and William Gardner, View of the Town of Brightelmstone, (Brighton: P. Thomas, 1779). Maps K. Top. 42.14

But the Collection’s great delight is the variety of map that is to be found. George III’s beautiful copy of the map of ‘Brightelmstone’ surveyed in 1779 by Thomas Yeakell and William Gardner was probably specially coloured, by Yeakell’s daughter Louisa, a skilled colourist, for presentation to the King. Beneath the map showing a town that had barely expanded beyond The Lanes, there is a panorama of what was soon to become Brighton from the sea just as it was developing as a fashionable resort and a few years before the future Prince Regent created his ‘marine villa’, the predecessor of the Pavilion, just to the north of the old town. Yeakell and Gardner were to become famous far beyond the county of Sussex. Having come to the attention of the Master General of the Ordnance, the Duke of Richmond, Yeakell was to be appointed Master Draughtsman to the Ordnance in the early years of Ordnance Survey, and Gardner Chief Surveying Draughtsmen, and they set the quality and style of its maps.

Ktop20.
H. Hulsbergh, Plan of the City of London after the Great Fire . . . according to the Design and Proposal of Sir Christopher Wren, 1721.  Maps K.Top. 20.19-3.

The King’s Topographical Collection includes a particularly rare copy of  Christopher Wren’s radical proposals for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. It is a proof example, published in his lifetime, with the title added in manuscript. Wren’s proposals came to nothing because, contrary to the impression given by his map, the City of London was not a blank sheet. The buildings may have been damaged or destroyed, but property rights remained intact – and so did the imperative to rebuild and to get back to business. 

Royalexchange
Thomas Taylor, A View of the Inside of the Royal Exchange in Cornhill, London as it now is 1712.   Maps K. Top. 24.11-k.

Of no building was this truer than the Royal Exchange, London’s commercial hub, which was soon rebuilt. Betraying the innate conservatism of most financial institutions, the new building strongly resembled Thomas Gresham’s Royal Exchange of the 1560s (as, in a more monumental way, does the present Royal Exchange of the late 1830s). The new building is shown here as it was in 1712.  

‘No’, I can hear you saying, ‘There’s a mistake: this a view not a map!’. But look closely and perhaps we can compromise : at the very bottom, beneath the title, letters indicate the positions taken up by the various ‘nations’ under the arcade: the Dutch (a), the Jews (b), Italy (c), France (dd), Spain (ee), Portugal (f), Canaries (g), Virginia (hh), New England (i), East India (kk), Turkey (l), Norway (mm),  Baltic states (‘East-landers’) (nn), Hamburg (p) and finally the Irish (oo) and ‘Scotch or North Britain’ (qqq). Then as now, London was an international city.

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WarrenAn Exact survey of the Wareen in Woolwich drawn by John Barker at the R. Academy, An. 1749. Maps K. Top. 17.22.

As well as printed maps, the King’s Topographical Collection contains many manuscript fortification plans. Several are, perhaps surprisingly, charming. This one, showing the Military Arsenal in Woolwich in 1749, was drawn and decorated by John Barker, a cadet at the Military Academy that had been founded there in 1741. Cadets were taught drawing as well as surveying and several became talented artists. John shows his skills in the top left, with a fine if fanciful ink drawing of putti firing at the Arsenal (a schoolboy’s fantasy at getting his own back on his teachers?). John went on, over the following decades,  to be an active estate and military surveyor in Britain and Canada. His artistic skills may not have had a chance to develop, but the quality of his survey of Woolwich was such that when the King’s Topographical Collection was inspected by his successors on the Board of Ordnance in the 1830s, they ordered the plan to be sealed for security reasons.  The left corner of the map contains the initials (‘WHT’) of the inspector who insisted on it.  It was only to be unsealed many decades later: about 150 years after it had been created.

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One of the most evocative plans in the collection is this sketch to the view to be had from Morant’s Court  Hill near Sevenoaks in Kent (shown at the bottom)  in about 1780. Executed by a military draughtsman, Captain Robert Johnstone, it shows the country houses to be seen from there. 

IMG_0446Robert Johnstone, View from the points A, B, on Marams Court Hill ca. 1780 Maps K Top.17.43-c-2.

It was commissioned for the King by Lord Amherst, the former Commander-in-Chief of British forces in North America whose country house Montreal (named after the city of which he had been governor), had recently been completed and features prominently. Amherst had invited the King and Queen to visit him one November morning and the letter of invitation is still preserved with the plan. In it, Amherst gives the King instructions for reaching his house, adding that Captain Johnston ‘will be on the right of the road where he took the Sketch, in case Your majesty should chuse to have any further information of the Places’. Then anticipating royal tours of today,  he ends his letter with a request. ‘The Gentlemen and Ladies of the Parish’, he wrote, ‘will be at the Gate and if it pleased Your Majesty not to drive fast by them, their Happiness would be increased in the honour of seeing Your Majesty and the Queen’.

IMG_0444Concluding pages of letter from Lord Amherst to George III, 2 Nov [no year but ca. 1780]  Maps K. Top. 17.42-c-1

IMG_0442Montreal, the Seat of Lord Amherst. P. Sandby R.A. pinxt; W. Watts sculp, 1777.

We are seeking money to catalogue and digitise all the maps in the King’s Topographical Collection but particularly those of London and the South-East. Please give generously at www.bl.uk/unlock-london-maps and help us to make more discoveries like these.

Peter Barber

09 March 2015

London through the artist's eye

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About 40% of the King’s Topographical Collection consists of views. Many are drawings and watercolours by enthusiastic amateurs who were keen to record decaying churches, great houses and old buildings. But the work of some of the finest artists working in England in the 18th century such as Paul Sandby, William Pars, Michael ‘Angelo’ Rooker, John ‘Warwick’ Smith and Thomas Jones is also represented.

Most of the views in the collection are printed, but no less splendid for that. In the 17th century, the Bohemian exile, Wencelas (Wenzel/Vaclav) Hollar was the acknowledged master of the etching, a printing technique involving the application of acid to copper. His works are well represented in the Collection which also contains 16th-century engraved views which were once in the collection of Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657).

Perhaps most spectacularly, George III’s reign saw the perfection and spread of the aquatint, a printed hand-coloured process imitating watercolour. British artists were in the vanguard and were anxious to present their best work to the King. As a result the King’s Topographical Collection contains perhaps the greatest group of the highest quality aquatints anywhere in the world.
The sections of the collection relating to London and the South-East contain handsome views from the 16th to the 19th centuries with fascinating stories attached to them.

Maps K Top. 24.11-2-2.
Frans Hogenberg, [Exterior of the first Royal Exchange seen from Cornhill], ca. 1570.  Maps K Top. 24.11-2-2.

There is more to the large engraved view of the First Royal Exchange than meets the eye. The view was created, shortly after the completion of the building in 1569 by the artist and engraver Frans Hogenberg. The inscription mentions that it was paid for, as a benefit to the public and an adornment to the City, by Sir Thomas Gresham, whose grasshopper crest adorns the top of the weathervane. What it doesn’t say is that the building was meant as a challenge to Antwerp, where Hogenberg had been living until he was expelled because of his protestant beliefs in 1569. He may have felt that this print was a way of getting back at his persecutors. The building was certainly viewed as a thorn in the flesh by the Catholic powers of Europe. When in 1572 Hogenberg was commissioned to prepare a reduced copy of a map of London as the first town view in a multi-volume atlas of town views and maps, Civitates Orbis Terrarum, it was omitted – only for the publishers to be compelled, two years later, to insert a miniaturised version of this view to show the location of Gresham’s Royal Exchange.

Maps K. Top. 28.9-e.Wenceslaus Hollar, On the North Side of London , 1664  Maps K. Top. 28.9-e.

The next image moves a century later, to the summer of 1664, when Wenceslaus Hollar was seeking refuge from smells and diseases prevailing in the city. He moved to the fashionable suburban village of Islington, from which he made a series of exquisite little etchings of the view towards London. This view is dominated by old St Paul’s Cathedral, as seen from the North rather than across the Thames and lacking its steeple that had burnt down in 1561. Hollar shows it two years before its destruction in the Great Fire. In the foreground can be seen a group of Londoners practising their archery on the site of what are now the elegant Georgian houses of Canonbury. Though they doubtless regarded the archery as a sport, it had long been one of the compulsory skills of the members of the citizen militia, the trainbands, who a generation earlier had defended London against the armies of King Charles I.

Maps K. Top 26.5-r

S.H. Grimm, A drawn View of the Distribution of His Majesty's Maundy by the Sub-Almoner, in the Chapel Royal at Whitehall, 1773.  Maps K. Top 26.5-r

A little more than a century later, on Maundy Thursday, 1773, the King’s Almoner, the Rev. Sir Richard Kaye, the King’s Sub-Almoner, distributed the royal alms to needy pensioners in the Banqueting House in Whitehall, which was then used as a royal chapel. He gave 35  pensioners 35 specially minted silver pence each, reflecting the King’s age in  1773.  The King, dressed in red, looked on from a gallery: unlike today, the monarch  did not actually distribute the alms. Kaye commissioned a Swiss artist, Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, who had moved to London 5 years earlier, to depict the scene in watercolour. Grimm produced two large watercolours which are widely regarded as his masterpieces and exhibited them the next year, 1774, at the Royal Academy. There they were seen by George III – who was captivated by them. He tried to get Kaye to present them to him – but Kaye would not listen. George tried again and again to get Kaye to change his mind over the following decades but with no more success. Finally, in 1810 Kaye bequeathed them to George in his will – if he were still interested. By the time Kaye died, the King himself had gone incurably insane, but the watercolours were placed in his geographical collections, the trophies of a pursuit that had lasted nearly four decades.

Maps_k_top_21_31_5_c_port_11_tab (detail)William Daniell, A View of the East India Docks1808.  Maps K . Top. 21.31-5-c. Port.II. Tab

Aquatints enjoyed their heyday just as Great Britain was experiencing a technological revolution and our last two views commemorate different aspects of it. The first, an aquatint by William Daniell, shows the newly-built East India Docks, designed by John Rennie and Ralph Walker, that had just been constructed on the Isle of Dogs in East London. A masterpiece of engineering, it – with the West India and London Docks – gave London the capacity to absorb the goods that were flooding into Great Britain, making London the greatest trading city in the world. Had they not been built, the Thames alone could not have accommodated all the ships, which would have been compelled to go elsewhere. The River Lee is seen entering the Thames to the left and across the river is the site of the O2 Arena.

Maps K Top 30.1-1-g.

Augustus Charles Pugin, engraved by J. Hill, View of the Excavated Ground for Highgate Archway,  1812.  Maps K Top 30.1-1-g.

The second aquatint, by Augustus Charles Pugin, the father of the man who decorated the interior of the present-day Houses of Parliament, commemorates a disaster. In around 1800 John Rennie proposed that one of the first by-passes should be created. It would enable horse traffic to avoid the steep slope of Highgate Hill, along the main road North from London. The new road would run along a cutting at the side of the hill until it disappeared into a tunnel beneath a ridge that ran east from Highgate. Rennie’s geological researches were faulty however, and in April 1812 the tunnel collapsed in spectacular fashion, much to the glee of the gossiping classes. This print shows the aftermath. A year later, John Nash constructed a permanent bridge over the chasm and its descendant continues to carry traffic to and from Highgate, while the Archway Road thunders beneath.

This is just a fraction of what is contained in the King’s Topographical Collection and there are many more treasures to be uncovered. We are now fundraising to catalogue, conserve and digitise this collection and you can help us by making a donation today at www.bl.uk/unlock-london-maps. If would like to learn more about the project and how you can get involved, please get in touch with Rachel Stewart (rachel.stewart@bl.uk) and me, Peter Barber, at the British Library (peter.barber@bl.uk).