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

30 January 2015

So now you know!

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King George III's Topographical Collection illustrates Birmingham's dynamic expansion between about 1680 and 1824 with important and rare plans and views, both printed and hand-drawn.  Thanks to George III's enthusiasm for ephemera, however,  it also includes this advertisement of about 1770 for 'the Only Hotel in Birmingham'!

Maps KTop 42-82-k[Print of c. 1770 in King George III's Topographical Collection (Maps K Top 42.82-k)]

Peter Barber

26 January 2015

Enigmas and Errors: 19th-century cataloguing of the King’s Topographical Collection Part 2

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What do E M Forster and King George III have in common? Alas, this is not the beginning of a terrible joke. The answer is a little-known British topographical and marine artist, Charles John Mayle Whichelo (1784-1854). Whichelo was Forster’s great-grandfather and four of his works have remained unattributed in King George III’s Topographical Collection since at least 1829.

In an earlier post I looked at a drawing incorrectly catalogued as the Trinity Hospital in Guildford in the Catalogue of Maps, Prints, Drawings, etc., forming the geographical and topographical collection attached to the Library of his late Majesty King George the third. (London, 1829) and how the cataloguers transcribed inscriptions without questioning attribution and identification. Similarly, in the Catalogue of the Manuscript Maps, Charts, and Plans, and of the Topographical Drawings in the British Museum [known as the British Library from 1972] (London, 1844-1861) these errors were repeated. This has also been the case with four early watercolours by Whichelo, painted when he was nineteen in 1803.  Three of the watercolours depict London (Westminster and Stepney) while a fourth shows Sussex: St Margaret's Westminster Signed JW and dated 1803, Maps K.Top.23.24.a. 


St Margaret's Westminster, 1803, watercolour, by Charles John Mayle Whichelo, Maps K.Top.23.24.a.



Detail of Maps K.Top.23.24.a.

 This watercolour is catalogued as ‘A drawn View of the Church of St. Margaret Westminster, by I.W., 1803.’ in the 1829 catalogue but in the 1844 catalogue he is called ‘J.W.’


Detail of entry for Maps K.Top.23.24.a. in the Catalogue of Maps, Prints, Drawings, etc., forming the geographical and topographical collection attached to the Library of his late Majesty King George the third. (London, 1829.).


Detail of entry for Maps K.Top.23.24.a. in the Catalogue of the Manuscript Maps, Charts, and Plans, and of the Topographical Drawings in the British Museum [known as the British Library from 1972]. (London, 1844-1861)

S. S. E. View of Stepney Church signed ‘John Whiche’ within a gravestone, Maps K.Top.28.18.e.  and N. N. E. View of Stepney Church, signed and dated 'J.W. 1803',  Maps K.Top.28.18.f


S. S. E. View of Stepney Church, 1803, watercolour, by Charles John Mayle Whichelo, Maps K.Top.28.18.e.


Detail of the signature on Maps K.Top.28.18.e.


N. N. E. View of Stepney Church, 1803, watercolour by Charles John Mayle Whichelo, Maps K.Top.28.18.f.


Detail of the signature and date on Maps K.Top.28.18.f.

These are catalogued as being by IW and dated respectively 1801 and 1803 in the 1829 catalogue. but by JW and both dated 1803 in the 1844 catalogue. The 1844 catalogue identifies the church as St Dunstan’s, Stepney, but only for Maps K.Top.28.18.e.  


Detail of entries for Maps K.Top.28.18.e. and Maps K.Top.28.18.f. in the 1829 catalogue.


Detail of entries for Maps K.Top.28.18.e. and Maps K.Top.28.18.f. in the 1844 catalogue.

The fourth watercolour by Whichelo is the South East View Shoreham Church  signed J Whichelo 1803, Maps K.Top.42.24.b.


South East View Shoreham Church, 1803, watercolour by Charles John Mayle Whichelo, Maps K.Top.42.24.b.


Detail of Maps K.Top.42.24.b. .  Maps K.Top.42.24.b is signed ‘J. Whichelo’ but is catalogued as ‘A colored south-east view of New Shoreham Church; drawn by J. Whiebela, in 1809’ in the 1829 and 1844 catalogues.


Detail of entry for Maps K.Top.42.24.b. in the 1829 catalogue.


Detail of entry for Maps K.Top.42.24.b. in the 1844 catalogue.

The 1829 and 1844 catalogues record Whichelo’s name in different ways: IW, JW or Whiebela, although it is clear that all items are by the same hand and of similar subjects. This points to the fact that the cataloguers were required to work quickly through a large amount of material and they simply transcribed what they saw, or rather what they thought they saw on the work. It also shows that either more than one cataloguer was working through the material (otherwise we might expect a little more consistency in the attributions) or that those working on the collection were not able to correct their initial catalogue list.

A great many prints and drawings in the King’s Topographical Collection arrived in volumes or folios which were then disbound and regrouped according to geographical location, losing any sense of previous order, collection or provenance. That the Whichelos were catalogued inconsistently suggests that while they had probably entered the collection as a group, they had been split up before they were catalogued. The lack of consistency in recording attribution may also be because the artist was not the focus of the collection: it was topography.

The cataloguing, digitisation and research of the King’s Topographical Collection has allowed us to reattribute works and begin to gain a better understanding of the oeuvre of a number of topographical artists whose work has remained hitherto largely unstudied for the last two centuries. It has also allowed us to begin to compare works in this collection to similar works in others, such as some early Whichelo London watercolours and prints from the London Metropolitan Archives. and the British Museum

Many of Whichelo’s early topographical works were used as illustrations in publications such as E. W. Brayley's Beauties of England and Wales (1801–15) and of Pennant's Tours (of England, Scotland and Wales). Studying such volumes with the body of Whichelo’s topographical watercolours would be the next step in further understanding Whichelo’s early career.

These four small and previously unattributed watercolours in the King’s Topographical Collection are an example of the value of contemporary research and cataloguing, which has allowed for a greater understanding of the career of a prolific but often-overlooked British topographical artist working at the beginning of the 19th century.

Detail of Maps K.Top.42.24.b.

Alexandra Ault

19 January 2015

Fruits of Espionage in the K.Top

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Each region covered by King George III’s Topographical Collection has its own  particular character.  The volumes covering France are rich in maps that must have been taken by spies from the official French archives – the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the French National Archives mirror this situation by having numerous maps with an official English provenance.

We have to say ‘must’ because while the circumstantial evidence is often very strong, conclusive documentary proof is almost always lacking. There is only one incontestable piece of evidence of espionage in the King’s  Topographical Collection. It comes in a contemporary scribbled note stating that an agent – presumably working in the French War Office in Versailles – was paid 50 guineas by the Duke of Cumberland for a series of official plans of Metz, then an important French outpost in the North-East,  dating from 1727 and 1760. [Maps K. Top. 67.80 - 2 – a,c,d-g; for the agent, Rex Whitworth, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland.  A Life (London: Leo Cooper, 1992), p.173]. 

But one can be fairly confident about the source of other maps and plans. The papers of Charles II’s ambassador in Paris, Richard Graham, Viscount Preston, now in the British Library, contain a string of letters explaining in detail how Preston’s agents managed to intercept many maps of French border regions and of fortresses in France and abroad in the early 1680s  as they were trundling through the streets of Paris on their way from Versailles to the Invalides to be copied. [Peter Barber, ‘Necessary and Ornamental: Map Use in England under the Later Stuarts 1660-1714’, Eighteenth Century Life 14/3 (November 1990), p.19].

The numerous detailed manuscript maps of Picardy and Flanders dating from the 1650s and the plans of individual forts in the King’s Topographical Collection could well be among the ones stolen then [Michel Desbrière, Champagne Septentrionale.  Cartes et Mémoires à l’usage des Militaires 1544-1659 (Charleville-Mézières: Societé d’études ardennaises, 1995), pp. 79-96 ]. One particularly ornate manuscript plan, showing   Huningue near Basel on the Rhine, is in the style of the maps copied in the early 1680s by skilled miniaturists in the workshop in the Invalides  for inclusion in luxurious manuscript atlases being prepared for the King and his most important ministers.  It even  contains a handsome miniaturised portrait of Louis XIV himself!

It is more difficult to pinpoint the way in which  other, later, French military maps reached the King’s Topographical Collection, but there is again evidence among the British Library’s other collections, that some French military engineers facilitated their transfer to British service in the course of the 1690s by carrying with them the latest plans of important French forts. [Peter Barber and A. Stuart Mason ''Captain Thomas, the French engineer': and the teaching of Vauban to the English', Proceedings of the Huguenot Society, xxv (3) (autumn 1991), 279-287].

A colored "plan du Fort Louis du Rhin"; drawn about 1740 [Maps K.Top 58.24]

A couple of weeks ago an important new addition to this group has come to light.  It is a manuscript plan of Hesdin near Calais of about 1692 (Maps K Top 58.24). Hesdin  had only finally been absorbed into the French dominions in the 1650s and was one of a  group of towns that the famous French military engineer, Sebastien le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban  (1633-1707), was re-fortifiying in the early 1690s utilising the latest technology and defensive theories, to protect France’s northern borders.


But this plan does not just show the fortifications of Hesdin. It contains evidence that it was being used in the French war office, to monitor their efficacy. There is a penciled square around the centre of the plan with an inscription stating that  ‘the square of which this line is one of the sides encloses the extent of the terrain which is occupied by the relief that has been made for the King’ (‘Le Cadre don’t cette ligne est un des cotés Renferme l’espace du terrain qu’occupe le Relief quon a fait pour le Roy’). The style of the hand is the same as that of the plan and suggests that it was not a later addition but formed part of the plan from the start.  The ‘Relief’ was one of the so-called ‘Plans et Reliefs’ or immensely detailed 3-D relief models of towns and forts prepared for the French authorities from the late 17th century. Many are to be seen nowadays in a museum devoted to them in the Invalides in Paris and in the basement of the Musée des Beaux Arts in Lille.

The relief model of Hesdin does not seem to survive, and may no longer have been in existence when the plan was illicitly removed from the French archives. However it offers a possibly unique insight into how the relief models were actually used on a day-to-day basis. Far from being expensive playthings, they were used in combination with two-dimensional maps – like the plan in the King’s Topographical Collection – to monitor the effectiveness of France’s defences and, if necessary,  to follow the course of a potential siege. In this respect they foreshadowed the computer simulations and the interplay between Google maps and Google views of our time.

More – probably much more – of great importance for French history remains to be discovered among the maps in the French sections of the King’s Topographical Collection. However they will remain hidden unless a sponsor can be found to enable our highly-skilled cataloguing team to work at them.

Support the British Library's King's Topographical Collection here.

Peter Barber