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

02 September 2015

A Rare View of the Siege of Boston (1775-1776)

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The British Library is pleased to have a number of of maps and views currently on display in a special exhibition at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at Boston Public Library. These maps, which come from the King's Topographical and RUSI collections, were digitised and catalogued thanks to a project involving the Leventhal Map Center and generous private sponsors. The exhibition is entitled 'We Are One: Mapping America’s Road from Revolution to Independence,' and we are delighted to host this guest blog post about the display by Allison Lange. 

In late April 1775, twenty-five-year-old British Lieutenant Richard Williams left Europe for Boston to take part in the American war. The battles of Lexington and Concord earlier that month had prompted British troops to retreat to the city, which was soon surrounded by American soldiers. Williams landed in Boston in June, and—despite the circumstances—he was glad to be there. He declared in his diary, “the Land was a pleasing object after six weeks of absence from it.”

Williams’s duties were tied to the land. As a cartographer and artist, he mapped the area for military and political leaders to study. The British Library’s map collection includes several pieces of his work that offer unique, beautiful views of life during the siege.

The day after his arrival, Williams took stock of Boston. He went to Beacon Hill to view the rebellious colonists surrounding the peninsula. “Boston is large & well built, tho’ not a regular laid out town,” he concluded. Williams thought the area had seen better days “before the present unhappy affairs” when “it was livly [sic] and flurishing [sic].”

Add_ms_15535_5[Richard Williams] (active 1750-1776), 'A Plan of Boston and its Environs Shewing the True Situation of His Majesty’s Troops and Also Those of the Rebels, Likewise All the Forts, Redoubts and Entrenchments Erected by Both Armies.' 1775. Manuscript, pen and ink and watercolour. British Library Add.MS. 15535.5.  Publicdomain

Williams used his view from Beacon Hill for his maps and sketches. He likely drew the Plan of Boston and its Environs Shewing the True Situation of His Majesty’s Troops, which is part of the British Library’s map collection, from this spot. The map depicts the positions of the British and American troops in October 1775. Fortifications were colored yellow for the rebels and green for the British. Camps, like the one on the Boston Common, are red.



Richard Williams (active 1750-1776), 'A View of the Country Round Boston, Taken from Beacon Hill…Shewing the Lines, Redoubts, & Different Encampments of the Rebels Also Those of His Majesty’s Troops under the Command of His Excellency Lieut. General Gage, Governor of Massachuset’s Bay.' 1775. Manuscript, ink and watercolour. British Library Maps K.Top 120.38.  Publicdomain

In addition to this map, Williams captured the landscape with watercolors like A View of the Country Round Boston, Taken from Beacon Hill. He sketched Boston’s churches and homes and documented the British camps that had transformed the city into a military base. At the bottom of the scene, Williams included a key to identify fortifications like Castle Williams and the “Redoubts of the Rebels.”

British military and political leaders commissioned maps like these to gain a better sense of the Revolutionary War. Williams drew his Plan of Boston and sent it to London, where it was printed less than two weeks before the British evacuated the city on March 17, 1776. He also sent his watercolor view, one in a series, to London. This piece eventually made its way into the British Library’s King George III’s Topographical Collection.

After evacuating Boston and sailing for Nova Scotia, Williams became ill and abruptly stopped writing in his diary. He returned to England, where he died on April 30, 1776. Although he died young, the unique views he left behind offer valuable insights into life during the siege.

For the first time, the British Library has loaned these items for display in the city that Williams captured on paper. Williams’ work is featured in the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center’s exhibition at the Boston Public Library. The exhibition, We Are One: Mapping America’s Road from Revolution to Independence, uses maps to explore the events that led thirteen colonies to forge a new nation. We Are One demonstrates that maps, from Williams’s plan to early maps of the new nation, were central to the revolutionary process. The exhibition features maps as well as prints, paintings, and objects from the Leventhal Map Center’s own collection and those of twenty partners, including the Library of Congress, William L. Clements Library, and John Carter Brown Library. Explore geo-referenced maps from the exhibition here.

The exhibition will be on display at the Boston Public Library through November 29, 2015. We Are One then travels to Colonial Williamsburg from February 2016 through January 2017 and to the New-York Historical Society from November 2017 through March 2018.

The Leventhal Map Center also hosts the NEH-funded American Revolution Portal database. Researchers can access maps from the American Antiquarian Society, British Library, Library of Congress, and other institutions in one search. Users can download images for research and classroom use.

Access these resources and learn more about We Are One here 

Allison K. Lange, PhD


12 August 2015

20th century maps: internship opportunity

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The British Library's Map Library is offering the following three month internship opportunity for a Research Council funded PhD student.

Contribute to a major exhibition launching in November 2016 that will explore key aspects of national and international government policy, boundaries and identities through the 20th Century. You will focus on developing part of the exhibition narrative that discusses the role of maps in geopolitical contexts e.g. boundary mapping used to establish new national borders; the role of mapping in communicating the work and supporting the existence of supranational bodies such as the UN andEEC.


CARTE NO. 3 - SLESVIG / MAP NO. 3 - SCHLESWIG from Conditions de Paix  =  Conditions of Peace [Paris, s.n., 1919]. British Library L.B.31.c.6113.  Publicdomain

One placement is available, open to Economic and Social Research Council students. You can find further details of the scheme, together with application form and guidance notes here

This is one of a number of exciting internship opportunities offered by the British Library, and the deadline is fast approaching: 16:00 on the 28th August 2015. Good luck!

11 August 2015

Revelatory Rivers in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire – Part 1

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The K.Top cataloguing and digitisation project marches ever forward, rather like the Swedish military in this map. The illustration below shows a battle scene, one of several on the map, from the Swedish Intervention during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). The military are shown south-east of Prague, in the Kingdom of Bohemia.

Carl Heinrich von der Osten, [Map of Germany made after the Swedish Campaign of 1630-48], [about 1650], Maps K.Top.88.1. (detail)

This map’s military and historical significance had, prior to the current cataloguing and digitisation project, been obscured by the possibly perfunctory description in the British Museum’s 1829 catalogue:

Catalogue of Maps, Prints, Drawings, etc., forming the geographical and topographical collection attached to the Library of his late Majesty King George the third, etc., 1829

Now titled in the British Library’s catalogue in accordance with published works regarding the map, particularly Harold Köhlin’s article A map of Germany made after the Swedish Campaign of 1630-48 in Volume 8 of "Imago Mundi" (1951), but also Peter Meurer’s entry for map number 8.12.5.aa in Corpus der älteren Germania-Karten (2001), the new title offers better access to the map itself, while the citations to these reference works act as a platform for further study. Access to the catalogue is freely available through Explore the British Library.

Although the map does indeed show rivers, just as the 1829 catalogue entry suggests, its purpose was celebratory - peace at the end of the Thirty Years’ War – and it was also intended to illustrate and glorify Swedish intervention by marking the locations of important battles. A “thank you” in cartographic form, perhaps. The map was created by Carl Heinrich von der Osten, a German Royal Engineer in Swedish service, who signs the map at lower right, and was drafted by Matthaeus Merian. It is printed on four separate sheets and joined.

Carl Heinrich von der Osten, [Map of Germany made after the Swedish Campaign of 1630-48], [about 1650], Maps K.Top.88.1. (signature detail)

The map is scarce in any state and the K.Top example appears to be the first state of the map, prior to the addition of surrounding letterpress text panels and a grand title - “AMORE PACIS”. Meurer mentions just one example of this first state; in the Staatsbibliothek, Berlin (V 5606).

Carl Heinrich von der Osten, [Map of Germany made after the Swedish Campaign of 1630-48], [about 1650], Maps K.Top.88.1.

This map is just one of some approximately 6000 maps and views devoted to Germany and the Low Countries, about 15% of the whole and thus one of the collection’s largest geographical areas. Housed in a guard volume focussing on the rivers in Germany, and indeed the wider Holy Roman Empire, this map by von der Osten was the first of several important discoveries all from this same volume, details of which will follow in subsequent blog posts.

Kate Marshall