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 March 2018

Georg Wilhelm Schimper in Abyssinia: a new online resource

We are pleased to introduce this guest blog post by Dr Dorothea McEwan.

Ethiopia is the product of a long historical process, from the Aksumite empire 2000 years ago, then the introduction of Christianity in the 4th century, the political expansion of various ethnicities, the centuries-long artistic development of rock churches, followed by Portuguese military and Roman Catholic religious intervention in the 16th and 17th centuries, and finally the unification of the country under emperor Tewodros ll (reigned 1855-1868).

Europeans have travelled in the country and written about their experiences adding to this geographical knowledge by drawing maps of the  routes of their travels, like the Scotsman James Bruce, who published his account in 1790. In 19th century Europe the growing importance of geography as an academic discipline led many travellers to create maps, which they sometimes complemented with potted histories of the lands, the turbulent political times and customs and mores of the populations.


Map of Axum und Adoa. Add ms 28506, f. 17. This is the Aksum and Adwa Region in Tigre, concentrating particularly on how far the clay plateau extends and on its configuration (shown here in red which is also more or less its natural colour ‘).

One such traveller was the German botanist Georg Wilhelm Schimper (1804-1878), who lived and worked in Ethiopia from 1838 to his death in 1878. He witnessed upheavals and wars, the coronation of Emperor Tewodros II in 1855, married and had children with Ethiopian women, but most notably, he criss-crossed the country to research the flora of the country. He sent the dried botanical specimens back to Germany and France and made a living out of it courtesy of travel associations like the Esslingen Reiseverein which advanced money to Schimper and recouped it from the sale of his dried plant specimens to European herbaria.

When this income dried up, he was lucky enough to be appointed as regional administrator in Enticho, Northern Ethiopia, until 1855. In the 1860s he was engaged in something totally new: because of his detailed knowledge of the plant life in various regions, dependent as this was on the differing soils and rock formations, he proceeded to integrate geological information onto maps that he drew himself, accompanying the maps with plentiful and detailed botanical, geological and geographical observations.

He produced four manuscript maps, held by the British Library at Add. MS 28506. The maps and accompanying commentaries by Andreas Gestrich, Dorothea McEwan and Stefan Hanß have been published by the German Historical Institute London, and are online here. The database presents 221 folios of the original German pages, transliterated in modern German and translated into English, with a fully annotated bibliography and biography of Schimper.  


(BL Add ms 28505, f. 86r) This folio is wonderfully illustrated with little sketches of parasols and rain ‘coats’ worn by local people together with the following explanation:

'The Scirpus and Juncus, known as Saddi, usually growing on the banks of brooks or otherwise in quite marshy places, and some slender Cyperus, called Gadima, which grow there too, are used for parasols and shepherds’ cloaks. The parasols are made from the stems of these plants in the following manner: A few inches below the thicker end of a normally three to three and a half ft. long stick or reed, four thin rods are first attached as spokes. Their thickness and length are more or less the same as the whalebone of the parasols of European ladies. Then the stems of these plants are used to weave a small flat disk around these four spokes lying right up against the stick. Next a number of other spokes are woven into this disk, which, in the gaps, gets double stem reinforcement. Now the whole framework is tightly interwoven, snake-like with these stalks.

These stalks are first stripped of their green outer skin, making the whole thing look like a white shade. These parasols are called Zelal here, meaning ‘shade’, and are very much in use by women as well as by men. As these parasols cannot be folded they have to be carried around even when it is cloudy or in the evening at dusk. These parasols are the same size as the parasols carried by European ladies, but they are not slightly curved. They have an almost completely flat, horizontal parasol top.

Typha, and the larger Cyperus (Doguale) are also used, just like the Scirpus and Juncus stalks, for this purpose and for making shepherds’ cloaks. It would be impossible to find a better or simpler coat to protect you from the rain. The green outer casing of the stalks of these reed-like plants are left on, and then they are woven into a shape like the guardhouses of European soldiers on individual sentry duty. This kind of reed coat, like a roof, reaching to the knees and repelling rain quite well, is called Gassa, and is only used by shepherd boys. In the cold highlands of Semien, shepherds often wear sheepskins, like other adult country folk.'  

You can access George Wilhelm Schimper in Abyssinia: Observations on Tigre, go to

Dorothea McEwan

08 March 2018

International Women's Day: Helen Wallis OBE (1924-1995)

International Women's Day 2018 provides the opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of Helen Wallis OBE (1924-1995) head of the British Museum and later British Library's map collections between 1967-1986, and to promote a research fund set up in her memory. 


Helen Wallis was one of the leading figures in map librarianship who pioneered the study of cartography. She was the first woman to hold the position of Map Librarian, following on from her predecessor R.A. Skelton (1906-1970) in 1967. Over 19 years she made the British Library the centre for map studies through research, publications and exhibitions including the Cook bicentenary exhibition of 1968, the American War of Independence exhibition of 1975 and the Francis Drake exhibition of 1977.

Wallis was a geographically-trained historian, a gifted and enthusiastic communicator, and a prominent member of professional and academic organisations. Among her wide research interests were historical globes. She was the first to unearth the significance of the earliest English-produced globes the (Molyneux Globes of 1590), and was the first to research the Jesuit-produced 'Chinese' globe of 1623 which was donated to the nation during her tenure. Once, when transporting the globe on an aeroplane to Berlin where it was to be exhibited, she famously had a seat reservation made out to it in the name of 'Mr Globe'.


Mr Globe

In honour of the memory of Helen Wallis, an annual award of £300 is available to a scholar  from any field, whose work will help promote the use of the British Library's cartographic collections in historical investigation. The award also offers the convenient working environment of the British Library with extended privileges. The fellowship may be held as a full or part-time appointment, but would normally be for one or two periods totalling a minimum of 6 months with the maximum period being one calendar year.

To apply please send a letter of application, indicating the period you intend to be in London and outlining your proposed research project, together with a full curriculum vitae and the names of three referees to or by post to The British Library, Map Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, UK. The closing date for each annual award is May 1st. For further information on the award please contact

Tom Harper 

29 January 2018

The Ultimate Tourist Souvenir: John Rocque’s 1750 Map of Rome

For many of the thousands of British men and women who ventured abroad during the eighteenth century, travelling to Italy was the highlight of the trip. To some it was even considered an essential activity for any aspiring socialite or person of culture. In the words of Dr Samuel Johnson, “A man who hath not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see”.[1]

Sir Bourchier Wrey (1714/15–1784), who travelled around Europe in the mid-1730s – including a sojourn in Italy – came up with a novel way of commemorating his time there: he decided to commission a map of Rome.[2]

The map in question is John Rocque’s A plan of Rome… (see fig. 1) published in 1750 – of which there is a fine copy in King George III’s Topographical Collection.[3]

Fig 1

Fig. 1: John Rocque, A Plan of Rome, (London, 1750), British Library Maps K.Top.81.22.

We can tell that Wrey was involved in the production as there is a decorative cartouche dedicating the map to him in the bottom-right corner (see fig. 2).

Fig 2

Fig. 2: Detail of John Rocque, A Plan of Rome, (London, 1750), showing the decorative cartouche that dedicates the map to Sir Bou[r]chier Wrey.

With an eye for sales, Rocque catered his map to potential grand tourists: he has highlighted certain buildings and sites that had architectural or antiquarian interest with deep scoring, so they stand out in black (see figs. 3 and 4).

Fig 3

Fig. 3: Detail of John Rocque, A Plan of Rome, (London, 1750), showing the title and the area around St Peter’s Basilica.

Fig 4

Fig. 4: Detail of John Rocque, A Plan of Rome, (London, 1750), showing the urban centre of Rome.

This innovation would have made the map immediately more useful and alluring to travellers. These highlighted areas, which comprise the numbered locations of the index, are far more easily identifiable than if they simply were marked with numbers.

Rocque was one of London’s most successful mapmakers of the eighteenth century and this plan of Rome followed in the wake of his other city maps, such as those of Berlin (1745), London and Westminster (1746), and Paris (1748).[4]

On another level, however, this map speaks of the immense personal and societal impact of the Grand Tour.

Wrey had returned from travelling over a decade prior to the date of publication. This interval demonstrates that the effects of Wrey’s experiences abroad did not conclude when he first set foot back on English soil. Rather, his Grand Tour still had powerful enough meaning for him to want to assist Rocque in publishing this map.

But aside from seeing this map as a personal memento for Wrey, we can also recognise its wider social value. With this map Wrey was making a carefully constructed public expression of his own identity. By patronising a map of Rome, the traditional pinnacle of the Grand Tour, Wrey was showing off both his cultural and historical sensibilities and his appreciation of the science of mapping. 


Fig. 5: Sir Bourchier Wrey’s portrait for the Society of Dilettanti, by George Knapton, 1744, showing him dishing up some punch from a classicised bowl inscribed with Horace’s phrase “Dulce est Desipere in Loco” – “It is delightful to play the fool occasionally”. (Wikimedia Commons, Source/Photographer: J. Paul Getty Trust)

What’s more, Wrey was an active member of the Society of Dilettanti, whose objective was to promote knowledge of classical antiquity (and the members certainly had fun whilst doing so – see fig. 5).[5] Finally, as this map marks an important update on the cartography of Rome for a British audience, we can detect Wrey’s intention to make Rome more accessible to grand tourists.

What better way is there to remember your own travels than to put your name on the map?

Jeremy Brown

Jeremy is undertaking an AHRC collaborative PhD with the British Library and Royal Holloway University of London on Maps and the Italian Grand Tour. 


[1] Boswell, James, Life of Johnson (London: Oxford University Press, 1965): 742.

[2] Some biographical information on Sir Bourchier Wrey, sixth baronet, can be found at: Handley, Stuart, ‘Wrey, Sir Bourchier, fourth baronet (c.1653–1696)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008) [, accessed 4 Jan 2018].

[3] Maps K.Top.81.22.

[4] For more information of Rocque’s life and work see Varley, John, ‘John Rocque. Engraver, Surveyor, Cartographer and Map-Seller’, Imago Mundi, 5 (1948), 83-91.

[5] For an overview of the activity and achievements of the Society, see Redford, Bruce, Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England, (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008).