THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

17 December 2015

The Curious Map Book

The map researcher and dealer Ashley Baynton-Williams has written a book about some of the weirder and more wonderful historical maps in the British Library's collection.  From the hundred maps included in 'Curious Maps', now published, we asked him to select his top three. Ashley.

I have always had an interest in maps created by the 'mapmaker at play', maps which have been historically - though not altogether accurately - termed  'cartographic curiosities'. Given the British Library is home to the best printed map library in the world, choosing a hundred of them for inclusion in 'Curious Maps' was a difficult task. Selecting the following three highlights from among them was even more difficult. Many of them were topical productions, produced to illustrate or satirise current events. The following selection shows how little has changed with the passage of time.

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Lilian Lancaster, 'United States a correct outline', 1880. British Library Maps cc.5a.230

A recurring figure in the book is Lilian Lancaster, a well-known English actress, singer and stage performer, with a notable talent for drawing cartoons and caricatures, often cartographic in nature. Lilian was on a tour of the United States in 1880, during the final stages of the Presidential election, and the campaigning inspired her to draw two cartoons. Superimposed on the outline of the United States, this manuscript depicts the 'rough-and-tumble' of the campaign, with comic portraits of the two candidates as squabbling children in dresses: James A. Garfield (the Republican challenger) and his opponent Winfield Scott Hancock (the Democratic candidate). Uncle Sam has turned his back on the mayhem, clearly thinking that the future occupant of the White House should be chosen from serious men campaigning in a serious manner, not these two, throwing simplistic sound bite punches.

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Thomas Onwhyn, Comic Map of the Seat of War with entirely new features [The Crimean War], 1854. British Library Maps X.6168.

Of all the different genres of curious map in the book my personal favourites are the serio-comic satirical maps of the second half of the nineteenth century. Of these, the best is Thomas Onwhyn's 'Comic Map of the Seat of War with entirely new features', signed 'Done by T.O.'. The initials are rather concealed along the southern coastline of Turkey and only recently spotted, allowing us to properly identify the mapmaker. Onwyn was the son of Joseph Onwhyn, an artist and engraver who had produced a 'Map of Green Bag Land', in 1820 which satirised the increasingly messy attempts by King George IV to divorce Queen Caroline.

The seat of war map was published in 1854 at the onset of the Crimean War between Great Britain, France and Turkey, on one side, and Russia on the other. A skilled production, it has a strong claim to be the very first serio-comic map. There are all manner of satirico-political references, with notably barbed comments about Russia.

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However many times I look at it, there is always something new to see. I love the awful British puns (as does my friend, writer and blogger, Tim Bryars) - particularly the alcohol-related ones: Malta is depicted as a tankard of ale (malt beer); the Caucasus Mountains are a row of bottles with corks a-popping, labelled 'Cork as Us Mountains & Bottle him', while Constantinople is represented as a bottle of port, labelled 'The Sublime Port'!

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The Crimean war was fought to peg back Russian aggression in south-eastern Europe. The references to the war in the Baltic and Black Seas give a humorous take on war, characterizing it as clipping the Russian bear's claws. This light-hearted approach was not always well received, with one reviewer complaining about this viewpoint while the reality was that men were daily being killed, wounded or dying from other causes.

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Johnson Riddle & Co. Hark Hark The Dogs Do Bark, 1914. British Library Maps 1078.(42.).

When the First World War commenced in 1914, a new generation of artists produced comic maps to satirise the protagonists. Many thought that the war would be of short duration. But by 1915, when the human cost of the conflict became apparent, propaganda mapsadopted an altogether darker tone.My third choice is 'Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark!', published by Johnson, Riddle & Co. in 1914. The artist has chosen to depict the different nations as dogs. Many are obvious choices, notably the British bulldog and the French poodle, while Germany (the enemy) is depicted as the funny-shaped and rather harmless dachshund, rather than the German Shepherd (Alsatian) or Rottweiler that a German publisher might have chosen. I like to think that the puppet-master who is controlling the strings of the Royal Navy ships is Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, while others argue that it is simply a generic 'John Bull' figure, and any likeness to Churchill coincidental.

The rather naive jingoism of these two satirical maps makes for fascinating and compelling, images alas, that war could be as harmless and as 'fun' as the cartoons satirising them. 

The Curious Map book is published by the British Library and available here.

Ashley Baynton-Williams