THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

2 posts from December 2012

21 December 2012

The Nativity in maps

I’ve been struggling all week to find something Christmassy in a map to write about. The Ortelius map of Russia has some people riding on a sleigh, but it doesn't quite fit the bill. Then I found a map with a Nativity scene in it and there was, as they say, much rejoicing.

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The scene is, rather unsurprisingly, in a map of Palestine/ the Holy Land, of which many were produced over the years. The earliest pre-1500 printed local maps, in fact, are pretty much all of Palestine. These aren't simply maps, but map pictures containing the Biblical narrative in the form of text and small vignettes placed in their scripturally correct locations.

The map was a framework in which the narratives could take place. Great for children, the illiterate, those wishing to conduct a virtual pilgrimage as a form of penance. It is a bit strange the Nativity doesn't feature more. Partly, I think, the Old Testament tended to take precedence, being far more of a geographical narrative than the New, but the fact is that the Nativity was subordinate in importance to a number of of other narratives, especially the Passion.

But also, the problem is that if you want to show this level of illustration, you need to make the map pretty big. Big maps are often more expensive, and more likely to get damaged, like this damaged thing.

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It is by a publisher called Thompson, produced in around 1795 for what at that time was an increasingly lucrative educational market. Originally it would have been intended for a Sunday School wall, which is probably why it is so beaten up, by which we may assume it to have been well used, and successful. This is emphatically NOT the same sort of map product as Breydenbach's gorgeous Holy Land view of 1486, though it shares many similar features.

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This close up shows the group of nativity scenes, Wise Men entering stage left, the Flight into Egypt stage right,  A stable and the Massacre of the Innocents, one of Herod’s soldiers dangling a baby. No great work of art – a crude woodcut – but everything is there, the sheep, the star, conjured up with primitive beauty.

There are far more vivid nativity scenes, of course, in galleries and churches, but where the map format triumphed was in its ability to show as many things as possible in one frame. Often the vignette scenes were copied – albeit often clumsily – from reproductions of famous works. Such maps also had a social purpose and an effect which we are able to understand through looking at them as objects, not just for the images they contain.

06 December 2012

Falmouth gets the octopus treatment

The British Library’s Cartographic Department has added another couple of octopus maps to its collection, and it is doubtful the Octopus Appreciation Society will be any more pleased with them than any of the others.

It is the unlucky fate of this queasy cephalopod (thanks Wikipedia) to assume a form which encapsulates perfectly all the greedy, amorphous, appropriating, hoardy traits of mankind. First used in Fred Rose’s 1870s Serio-Comic map of Europe to emphasise the multifarious designs of Russia, the octopus became a very popular device in political illustration the world over, representing nations (Russia, Japan, Britain) ther leaders (Churchill), their money (the dollar), and how they got it (property rents, below, from around 1925).

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And let's not forget Falmouth, that greedy conniving Cornish town, jealously eyeing up the port and surrounding area with their rateable population and exploitable acreage of land.

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 The reason for this particular bust-up is probably the Municipal Corporations Act of 1882, government legislation which gave town (borough) councils like Falmouth extra powers over surrounding areas, and provided government grants to buy up land. Within sight of Falmouth were the docks, levies from cargo, a piece of the developing tourist trade, according to those on the opposite side, anything it could get its tentacles around. 

Printed in London by Thomas Olver (c. 1882) the map gives us a great insight into tensions between town and country during the late 19th century. The relentless urban expansion is not often seen from the point of view of the rural outskirts, nor the effects of this expansion and legislation upon the dynamic of smaller urban centres and their surroundings. It probably isn't the only town to have been given the octopus treatment.

Anthropomorphic qualities sometimes only go so far. Far from being the aggressor, the terrifying sea monster of old, this one looks like he just wants to escape into the chilly Cornish sea, and who can blame him.