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

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

20 July 2015

The Kangxi atlas in the King’s Topographical Collection

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The following blog focuses on an atlas of China produced by French Jesuits and now in the Topographical Collection of George III.

 The founding of the Académie des Sciences in Paris in 1666 put France at the forefront of the scientific developments in Europe. The Academy’s efforts resulted in dramatic advances in cartographic and surveying methods, as well as expeditions to remote locations in order to contribute to the accurate depiction of the globe. The French Jesuit mission to China in the 1690s was focused on this very ambition – geographical exploration in order to build a better European understanding of the empire.

 For the Chinese authorities mapping represented a means of control over areas conquered by the Manchu Qing Dynasty. The resulting Kangxi or K'ang-hsi atlas (taking its name from the emperor, who ruled from 1661-1722), was completed from the surveys carried out between 1708 and 1718, chiefly by Dominique Parrenin (1665-1741), Thomas Antoine (1644-1709), Joachim Bouvet (1656-1730), Jean Baptiste Regis (1663-1738) and Pierre Jartoux (1669-1720).

 In 1705 the Jesuits had been given the task of creating a map of Tianjin region, an area of intense flooding, and the region around Beijing in 1707. Satisfactory results of these initial projects piqued the emperor’s interest to see the Great Wall and further areas mapped. This led to the survey of the vast areas of the empire including all the Chinese provinces and parts of Tartary. The Jesuits were not allowed into Tibet, Korea and Eastern Turkistan, and here they used maps constructed by Chinese officials. Tibet was surveyed twice and the additional information collected was used for printing of subsequent editions of the atlas.  

The first woodcut edition was printed in 1717, followed by copperplate edition in 1719 and, the second woodcut version in 1721. The King’s Topographical Collection printed copy of the atlas (Maps K.Top.116.15,15a,15b.) is a fine example of the first engraved edition. It comes in the form of three large rolls each measuring around two by three metres. The map covers fifteen Chinese provinces, Korea, Great Tartary and Tibet. The text on the map is in Chinese and Manchu script. Additionally, the manuscript annotations in Italian transcribe names of provinces, cities, rivers and islands. The hand is likely to be that of Father Matteo Ripa, the Italian Jesuit, engraver of the copperplate edition of the map. It was also Ripa who presented the copperplate set of Kangxi atlas to George I, during an audience on 9 September 1724 when he visited London on his way back from China.

This in itself is interesting. Even more interesting is the presence of another map (Maps K.Top.116.18.a-d.2 TAB.), comprising four manuscript rolls and containing the east coast of China, from Hainan to the Russian island of Sakhalin, with the Amur delta. The geographical notes in Italian are in the same hand as the manuscript annotations on the engraved copy of the atlas. Peter Barber suggests the map might have been part of the presentation to the king. Nevertheless, attribution and the exact story of provenance of this map can only be speculative. Sources are inexistent with regards to a manuscript copy of the map being presented by Ripa to George I. Copper plates were part of the presentation set, but  no sign of these plates in the King’s Topographical Collection can be found.


The Jesuits’ mapping of China can be viewed as part of a wider pattern of early-modern era monarchs commissioning the mapping of their dominions. This is well represented by Cassini’s work in France and Peter the Great’s mapping of Muscovy. Good mapping was essential for expansion and for the maintenance of political control. In China, this became part of the evolving system described as the Manchu-Chinese diarchy, intended to minimize the dichotomy between the conquering and the conquered.

From a European perspective, the Kangxi atlas formed the basis for building a more accurate understanding of China. However, it took almost another fifteen years, before the monumental work by Jean-Baptiste Du Halde: "Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique, et physique de l'empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise", was published in 1735, including 41 maps of China by Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville. The wider European reception of this atlas is another story.

Further reading:

Barber, P., “A very curious map of China: The acquisition of Chinese maps by British Library and its predecessors, 1724-2014” (in press)

Bagrow, L. 1964. “The cartography of Asian peoples”. History of cartography, revised and enlarged by R.A. Skelton, 197-211. London: C.A. Watts & Co.

Foss, T. N. 1988. “A Western interpretation of China: Jesuit cartography”. East meets West The Jesuits in China, 1582-1773, 209-251. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

Gray, B. 1960. “Lord Burlington and Father Ripa’s Chinese engravings”, 40-43. The British Museum quarterly, 22 (1/2).

Hsia, F.C. 2009. “Observational fortunes”. Sojourners in a strange land: Jesuits and their scientific missions in late imperial China, 110-128. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hostetler, L. 2001. “Mapping territory”. Qing colonial enterprise ethnography and cartography in early modern China, 51-80. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Xiaocong, L. 1996. A Descriptive catalogue of pre-1900 Chinese maps seen in Europe, 162-163.

Yee, C.D.K. 1994. “Traditional Chinese cartography and the myth of Westernization”. Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies. Vol. 2.2. of The History of Cartography, eds. J. B. Harley and David Woodward, 170-202. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.