THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians

Introduction

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

06 June 2017

Hollar in Hull

As UK City of Culture 2017 the city of Hull is currently host to an array of festivals, events and exhibitions, and the British Library is delighted to have been able to lend some of its map treasures to one of them.

The Ferrens Art Gallery's Rembrandt exhibition (1 April - 28 August) will include not only one of the most significant early printed maps of Hull, but the copper plate used to print it.    

GggKingston upon HullWenceslaus Hollar, Kyngeston-upon-Hull. London, around 1642. British Library Maps K.Top 44.32.

Hull-British-Library1

Wenceslaus Hollar, [Copper plate used to print a map of Hull, around 1642]. British Library Maps 177.L.2.

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) was a Czech artist brought to England  by Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel in 1636 and excelling with sublimely etched prints of a variety of subjects, including maps and urban bird's-eye views. His map of Hull is thought to have been produced in 1642, around the time of the siege of Hull by Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War (1642-51).

The example of this map on display is the copy from the Topographical Collection of George III. It is accompanied by the very copper plate etched by Hollar then inked and passed through a press to create it. Copper plates hardly ever survive (often being melted down and reused), and so we are particularly pleased that such a fine example is now able to be seen in the very place it depicts, its copper glinting for a 21st century audience among other examples of 17th century art and culture.

12 May 2017

Saxton's cost-cutting exercise

The first atlas of England and Wales was published in 1579. It is a landmark in the cartography of Britain, containing maps of the counties of England and Wales by the mapmaker Christopher Saxton, engraved mostly by Dutch artists but also the odd Englishman such as Augustine Ryther.

The maps are believed to have been commissioned by Queen Elizabeth's secretary of state William Cecil Lord Burghley during the 1570s. Its purpose was security, defense and administration during a period of internal intrigue and international instability, notably tension with Catholic Spain. 

Burghley's own copy of the atlas, held in the British Library (Royal MS.18 D.III.)  contains his notes identifying Catholic families and potential justices of the peace. Shannon and Winstanley suggested the author of one of the atlas's maps of Lancashire to be none other than Francis Walsingham's cryptographer Thomas Phelippes.

001ROY000018D03U00082000[SVC2]Thomas Phelippes(?), [Map of Lancashire], c. 1576. British Library Royal MS.18.D.III 

England had enemies indeed during the 1570s, and war would break out with Spain in 1585. So why, by contrast to the atlas's larger scale county maps of snug and safe Monmouthshire and Leicestershire did Saxton provide only a puny small scale map for vulnerable south east England?

001MAP00000C7C1U00011000[SVC2]Christopher Saxton, Cantii, Southsexiae, Surriae et Middlesexiae comitat. London, 1576. British Library Maps C.3.bb.5.

In 1801 again under threat of war, this time with France, the Ordnance Survey made sure Kent was mapped before anywhere else.

Mudge

William Mudge / Ordnance Survey, The county of Kent, with part of the county of Essex. London: William Faden, 1801 (1809). David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Peter Barber pointed out that the elaborate decoration of Saxton's south east map could not distract from the fact that it wasn't really fit for purpose. Barber also suggested the most likely reason for the rather pathetic map: Saxton was skint, short on funds and economising on engraving and production costs.

War isn't really the best time to be scrimping and saving, and it is around the time of the south east map (dated 1576) that a new paymaster, Thomas Seckford, was drafted in by Burghley to see the production through.

The eventual Spanish invasion was defeated in 1588. Then there was plenty of money to commission extravagant celebratory copper engraved maps of the English victory over the Armada.

061046

Robert Adams, [The British Isles with the route of the Spanish Armada] from  Expeditionis Hispanorum in Angliam vera descriptio. Anno Do. MDLXXXVIII. R. Adamo authore. A. Ryther sculpsit. London, c. 1590. British Library Maps C.3.bb.5

A set of these Armada engravings is bound up with another of the British Library's copies of Saxton's atlas (Maps C.3.bb.5), believed to belong to James I. The rest is history. 

03 May 2017

Picturing Places launched!

Last week the British Library was pleased to announce the successful launch of Picturing Places, a new online learning resource.  

Royal_MS_16_F_II_f73

The Tower of London with London Bridge and the City, from Charles of Orléans' "Poetry", around 1483. British Library Royal MS 16.F.II (f.73).

This is the first the British Library has dedicated to its extensive visual materials, and as the national collection of topographical materials, we are hoping to transform, elevate and broaden perceptions of topography through it, the related Transforming Topography research project , and our cataloguing and digitisation of the King’s Topographical Collection.

The site’s essays cover diverse subjects, themes such as pleasure gardens  and the Grand Tour, artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and JMW Turner, and particular works of art such as Mark Wood’s 1785 map of Kolkata

 

Crach_1_Tab_1_b_1

John Hassell, 'The Village of Thursley, looking westwards,' 1824. British Library Crach 1.tab.1.b.1.

We would like to thank the funders of the Transforming Topography project who have made this project possible - the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Marc Fitch Fund, Coles Medlock Foundation, Finnis Scott Foundation, Thriplow Charitable Trust and SP Lohia Foundation.

And we are greatly indebted to our authors. There are currently over 90 involved with the project, from current PhD students to Emeritus Professors, in fields such as art history, cultural geography and history, and it has been a pleasure to unlock our collections with experts from such diverse fields.

This is the first phase of the project, so watch this space – there is currently more content ready to publish, more being edited and more has been commissioned, so do keep an eye on the site as it continues to grow. 

Follow @BL_prints and @BLMaps on Twitter for updates and highlights.

Felicity Myrone

09 March 2017

Canada Through the Lens: mapping a collection

Canadian_National_Exhibition_from_the_Air_(HS85-10-36083)_original.tif

Above: early Canadian aerial photography from the Colonial Copyright Collection, from Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, to mark Canada's 150th anniversary celebrations, the British Library will be displaying a selection of photographs from its Colonial Copyright Photograph Collection under the title, 'Canada Through the Lens'. The photographs contained in the collection were received from Canada between 1895 and 1924 under legal deposit regulations and in 2012 the Library began to digitise this collection in collaboration with Wikimedia Commons and the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

Back in 2012 I was the curator for Canadian collections and so I thought that this year I would merge my old work with my new responsibilities by making a map of the material digitised in 2012. The Picturing Canada Project, as this work was called, was a successful attempt to release a collection online under Public Domain licensing but browsing material in the list-based structure of Wikimedia Commons can be laborious. Given most people who access the collection want to find photographs of places that interest them (for personal or research reasons) a map seemed like a good entry point and so we've been tinkering around with using the collection metadata to display an interactive map. The first results can be seen here:

The map has been built by inputting metadata relating to the collection (largely derived from original copyright records and work done by P. B. O'Neill of Dalhousie University in the 1980s) into a spreadsheet and then adding to this the best geographical coordinate data we could find. This data was then uploaded to Google Fusion Tables, which can produce a map as one of its software tools. When it comes to the geo-data sometimes we have been lucky and been able to pin a location accurately. However, in many cases we have roughly developed a location by tracing place names in the photograph title, while in others we have had to pin the location of the photographer's studio or make a best guess as to an appropriate location. As a result, the geographical data you see above is a good start but very much a work in progress.

Klondikers_buying_miner's_licenses_at_Custom_House _Victoria _B_C _Feb_21 _1898_(HS85-10-9774)

Above: 'Buying miner's licenses in Victoria for the Klondike gold-rush', J. W. Jones (1898). An example of a photograph with place specific data in the title. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Each point on the map corresponds to a photographic record and clicking on the icon will provide users with metadata on the image as well as a link to the image on Wikimedia Commons. In some instances there is no link as there is more work to do uploading a few files to Commons or removing metadata for images that were not digitised (for an explanation as to why, see the Picturing Canada project page). The colouration attributed to the icons is an attempt to visually depict when photographs were produced and each colour means the following:

  • Yellow, 1895 - 1899
  • Green, 1900 - 1909
  • Red, 1910 - 1919
  • Blue, 1920 - 23 (end of active period of legislation)

'Canada Through the Lens' will open at the British Library on May 26th so we have plenty of time to polish the map and its content ahead of the main release. As part of this, if any of you spot problems or have suggestions for refinements feel free to email me at: philip[dot]hatfield[at]bl[dot]uk. 

[PJH]

26 February 2017

20th Century Maps: Everything Changes, Nothing Changes

Maps improved in their technological power during the 20th century, and as a result became better able to meet the requirements of their time. Some of them even came to symbolise key themes of the age such as dynamism and modernity.

Tube drawing beck

Harry Beck, 'Sketch for the London Underground map], 1931. Victoria and Albert Museum, E.814-1979.

Probably the best map to capture this sense of speed, efficiency, new-ness, was the new London Underground map of 1933 by Harry Beck. Here was a map which broke dramatically with the conventions of the old, dispensing scale and representational accuracy in order to be useful to its users quickly in the new rapid bustling urban environment (there’s also more than a passing similarity between the underground map and Mondrian’s noisy, bustling ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ of 1943).

Portolano_(Egerton_MS_2855,_f.8r).jpeg

Grazioso Benincasa, [Portolan chart of the North-West coast of Europe], 1473. Egerton MS 2855.

Portolano_(Egerton_MS_2855,_f.8r).jpeg (1) _65173581_1933_map_2_line

Beck’s Underground map may the pin-up map for the brave new 20th century world, but in one crucial respect it drew on a trait of mapping which is as old as maps themselves: simplification. In straightening and regularising and de-cluttering the underground lines, the map is no different to early ‘portolan’ sea charts, sailing maps which possibly originated during the 13th century, and which use the same technique of simplifying, straightening and de-cluttering coastline features in order to be easier for their users to use.

And that’s one of the lessons we can take from maps: that history is a sequence of changes and continuities.

23 February 2017

Maps and women

“This is all very manly, isn’t it” a visitor said to me a while ago as I was showing a group around our current exhibition Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. And the visitor (whose own work explores identity and gender in society) was right – there is something apparently rather masculine about cartography, particularly 200 maps in a big room all shouting for attention, forcibly promoting their world-views.

Mapping has historically been portrayed a male pursuit, like many professions, but particularly given the active and even aggressive role of maps in empire and militarism (maps are never ‘submissive’, an outdated perception of femininity). So too the use of maps has been seen as a male pursuit. Note the lack of women on the covers of Ordnance Survey maps, except where they are passengers. Note the cliché of the terrible reluctance of many men to ask for directions when lost.

Over the past few decades we have  begun to question established norms (as we have many established world views) and gender is one of the many key narratives of the 20th century. Van den Hoonaard’s ‘Map Worlds: a history of women in cartography’ (2013) was jst one of a number of works to ‘recover [the involvement of women with map-making] from history’. Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line was curated specifically to engage with themes and aspects of history which have been hidden from sight, and this includes shining a retrospective light upon the role of women in cartography. Here are some of them. 

Mary Ann Rocque

G70125-40

Anonymous (after Mary Ann Rocque), [A map showing part of the road from London to Luton Park], London, 1767. Add. MS74215

Mary Anne Rocque inherited a map business from her husband John Rocque, who died in 1762 (Laurence Worms has produced some important research on this role of female business people in the British map trade). Not simply content to maintain the business, she published new and significant maps such as ‘A set of plans and forts in North America’ in 1765. This watercolour map of part of the road from London to Luton, based closely on Rocque’s work, was produced for the earl of Bute in 1767.

Phyllis Pearsall

GeographersAtlasofGreaterLondonGeographersAZMapCompanyCourtesyoftheBritish Library

Geographers’ Atlas of Greater London. London: Geographers A-Z Map Company, 1956. Maps 198.f.37. 

Pearsall is regarded as one of the most successful business people of the 20th century through her creation of the London A-Z (by the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company) in 1936. Compact and convenient maps of cities have a history which goes back centuries, but Pearsall’s was a marketing success in its clean, simple and efficient design and cover. It became the unofficial map of London which even Londoners were not ashamed to own.

Gertrude Williams

96b77f49-d920-4917-8229-5bc8a7ff09bc-1354x2040Otto Neurath & Gertrude Williams, 'Occupation of women by regions, 1931', from Women in work. London: Nicholson & Watson, 1945. W.P.8741/3.

Lady Gertrude Rosenblum Williams was an economist and social strategist whose research and writing impacted on the foundation and development of the Welfare State in the United Kingdom from the 1940s. Of Williams’ books of the ‘New Democracy’ series, the 1945 publication on ‘Women in Work’ contains some of the most distinctive infographic maps to make statistics more intelligible. These infographics were by Otto Neurath’s Isotype Institute. ‘The occupation of women by regions’ using 1931 census data is one of the best. Williams’ social mapping sits in a tradition begun by Booth and Webb, and continued into the 21st century by, for example, Bethan Thomas and Danny Dorling.

 Marie Tharp

6a00d8341c464853ef01b8d23592df970cHeinrich Berann, Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp, Atlantic ocean floor. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Magazine, June 1968. Maps CC.5.b.42.

Marie Tharp was a geologist and mapmaker whose research and observations were instrumental in the production of detailed maps of the ocean floor, produced for the US Navy after World War II. These maps, particularly the ocean floor maps illustrated by Heinrich Berann which were published in National Geographic magazine in 1968 did much to popularise the theory of continental drift. Because she was a woman Tharp was not permitted to go on research vessels.

These are just some of the female contributions to cartography which you can see in our map exhibition. It is particularly fitting that the British Library should be able to contribute to the recovering of this part of the 20th century experience. After all, the first Head of Maps of the British Library as it was created out of the British Museum in 1973 was Dr Helen Wallis OBE. Wallis was a key figure in the emerging discipline of the history of cartography throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and instrumental in bringing the British national map collection to the attention of the world. 'That monstrous regiment of women’, was how a (female) former employee remembers the Map Library being referred to during that time, but thanks to Maps we can continue to balance the scales.

17 February 2017

Soviet Military Mapping of the Cold War Era

In this exclusive guest post, map historian John Davies introduces one of the most enigmatic of 20th century map genres.

 'The story of Soviet military mapping is the story of a massive secret project, spanning the fifty years of the Cold War period – from the 1940s to the 1990s – and involving thousands of people. It’s the story of the world’s largest mapping endeavour and, arguably, the world’s most intriguing maps.

 The story of this amazing enterprise has never been told in full in print and the maps themselves have rarely been publicly displayed. One of them, however, the city plan of Brighton on England’s south coast is on show in Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line.

 Topographic Maps

The full extent of the project will probably never be known, but it is safe to say that almost the entire land surface of the globe was captured on topographic maps at scales of 1:1 million and 1:500,000. Huge areas of the Americas, Europe and Asia were mapped at 1:200,000 and 1:100,000, whilst maps at scale of 1:50,000 (the same as the familiar Ordnance Survey Landrangers) cover much of Britain and continental Europe. On top of that, the vast territory of USSR itself was mapped at 1:25,000 (the scale of Ordnance Survey Explorer maps) and much even at 1:10,000.

 The topographic maps have sheet boundaries corresponding to lines of latitude and longitude. This means they are non-rectangular, the two sides narrowing towards the top in the northern hemisphere. The sheets are non-overlapping and are identified by a reference number that uniquely identifies the global location and scale of every sheet.

 It works like this: each 1:1 million map is a quadrangle which covers an area of the globe four degrees of latitude deep and six degrees of longitude wide. The latitudinal bands are alphabetic, starting with A at the equator and increasing as you head north; the longitudinal zones are numbered 1 to 60. The Greenwich meridian (longitude 0) defines the boundary between zone 30 and 31; London, at latitude 51, lies in band M (the 13th band, spanning latitudes 48 to 52). London west of Greenwich, therefore lies in quadrangle M-30 and east of Greenwich in M-31.

  01_IMW

International Map of the World nomenclature adopted by Soviet Union, with lettered bands of 4° latitude and numbered zones of 6° longitude

 This convention, known as IMW – the International Map of the World – nomenclature was devised originally by Albrecht Penck at the end of the 19th century and was adopted in 1913 for a proposed international cooperative mapping project.  Although that project fizzled out, the USSR made use of the same convention and did succeed in mapping the whole world by the mid-20th century.

 As you zoom in on a 1:1 million sheet, you get 4 sheets at the larger scale of 1:500,000 (numbered 1-4); 36 sheets at scale 1:200,000 in a 6 by 6 grid (numbered 01-36), and 144 sheets at 1:100,000, in a 12 by 12 grid, (001-144). Zooming further in, for each of these you get 4 sheets at 1:50,000 (numbered 1-4).

 

02_M-31

Part of sheet M-31, scale 1:1 million, compiled 1969, printed 1975, showing the non-rectangular edges, aligned to lines of latitude and longitude.

  03_M-31-1

Part of sheet M-31-1, scale 1:500,000, compiled 1978, printed 1985.

04_M-31-01

Part of sheet M-31-01, scale 1:200,000, compiled 1982, printed 1986. Road distances in km are overprinted in purple.

 

05_M-31-01_reverse

The reverse side of the 1:200,000 series sheets has a comprehensive essay describing the physical, social, economic and industrial importance of the locality, together with a geological sketch map.

 

  06.M-31-013

Part of sheet M-31-013, scale 1:100,000, compiled 1976, printed 1982. Note the M25 under construction.

  07_M-31-013-3

Part of sheet M-31-013-3, scale 1:50,000, compiled 1974, printed 1981. This is the SW quarter of M-31-013. Note the A2 road is also labelled E107 (upper left), a European road number that did not appear on British maps.

 The projection used is the Gauss-Krüger (G-K) projection, based on a regular system of Universal Transverse Mercator projections that each cover a zone 6 degrees wide, with central meridians (axial lines of longitude) at 3 degree intervals. The advantage of this is that it simplifies the depiction of the globe as a flat surface for relatively small areas and allows the use of a rectangular grid within each zone. The grid provides accurate geographic co-ordinates to facilitate precise artillery targeting.

 The security classification depended on the map scale; small-scale maps (1:1 million and 1:500,000) were unclassified; 1:200,000 maps were classified as ‘For Official Use’, as were 1:100,000 and 1:50,000 maps of non-USSR territory. Maps of USSR territory larger than 1:200,000 were classified ‘Secret’.

 City Plans

Even more remarkable than the topographic maps are the city plans. These are known to exist for about two thousand cities worldwide, and there may have been many more. City plans are to a large scale, either 1:25,000 (two-and-a-half inches to the mile) or 1:10,000 (about six inches to the mile), and show an altogether much greater level of detail, including street names and listings of factories and their products, public buildings and transport facilities – even relatively unimportant (certainly non-military) objects such as bus stations and post offices. They are classified ‘Secret’.

 City plans are rectangular, being based on G-K projection with a central meridian near to the city. The sheets themselves vary in size, but are typically about 1,000 mm by 800 mm, and may be oriented as portrait or landscape layout to suit the terrain to be covered. Many cities require several sheets (in Britain, typically two or four; in USA, Los Angeles requires 12 sheets and New York 8). Unlike the topographic maps, in which the coverage is continuous and non-overlapping, city plans are individual, specific sheets, centred on a particular city; in some cases, such as the conurbation of West Yorkshire, the plans of several cities overlap. 

 About 100 British and Irish cities are known to have been mapped in this way, several of them more than once. Halifax, Luton, Cambridge and Cardiff are just some of the places for which maps of the 1970s and again of the 1980s exist. The later editions are entirely new productions, rather than revisions of the originals.

 The coverage of British cities includes not only the major industrial and commercial centres and important seaports and naval bases, but relatively rural and less strategically significant places such as Gainsborough and Dunfermline (although Rosyth Royal Naval dockyard is not far from Dunfermline, it is not included in the map coverage).

 The information depicted on city plans is derived from a wide variety of sources and includes detail not normally seen on local street atlases. For example, the 1990 Brighton 1:10,000 plan seen in Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line shows signals alongside the railway line, annotates the shoreline as having a mean tidal range of 4 metres, differentiates the vegetation types in parks and open spaces and identifies the ownership of facilities such as motor repair depots.

 City plans have a street index, a descriptive essay and a list of ‘important objects’. numbered and colour-coded on the map – purple for administrative buildings. black for industrial and green for items of military importance.

08_London

Part of 1:25,000 plan of London (sheet 1 of 4, compiled 1980, printed 1985) showing colour-code and numbered ‘important objects’. These are listed in the index as:

  1. State Archives [actually Public Records Office]
  2. Treasury
  3. Foreign Office
  4. Ministry of Defence
  5. Government offices
  6. Courts of Justice
  7. Police – Scotland Yard
  8. General Post Office
  9. Radio station BBC
  10. Residence of the Queen and Prime Minister [actually Her Majesty’s Theatre]
  11. Greater London Council
  12. University of London
  13. HQ of the US Navy in Europe [actually American Embassy]
  14. HQ General Staff

 Note also the depiction of tube stations (symbol M), arrows showing direction of flow of the Thames and direction of tides, Kingsway tunnel and symbols indicating lawns in Hyde Park. The river name is in upper case lettering, denoting that the river is navigable. None of this information appears on contemporary Ordnance Survey maps]

  09_Thurrock

Part of 1:10,000 plan of Thurrock (compiled 1974, printed 1977) showing Tilbury docks and the Dartford tunnel

 All the maps described above, the topographic maps and the city plans, were produced by VTU, the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff of the Soviet Army and are headed ‘General Staff’.  They carry in the bottom right-hand corner a print code, defining the map type, when it was printed and at which of the twelve print factories spread across the USSR.  

 How and Why

Two obvious questions spring to mind when looking at these maps. How did they do it? And why did they do it?

Neither has a simple answer.

Copying from Ordnance Survey maps, for example, is an obvious possibility. However, the wealth of information shown far exceeds what could be derived from these.  Analysis of the information shown on Soviet maps and plans proves that the compilers and cartographers had access to a huge range of published maps and guides. They include commercial street atlases, geological maps, transport maps and timetables, trade directories, tourist guides Admiralty charts and many other sources. Although these would have been freely available in Western cities, it is surprising to see just how wide the net was cast and intriguing to consider the process by which material was gathered and transmitted to USSR.

Even more surprisingly, the sources include items which had been published many years previously, resulting, for example, in the maps depicting ferries alongside the bridges that superseded them and long-disused railway lines being shown as operational.

After the launch of Zenit satellites in 1962, aerial imagery became a significant component in the data sources and can be seen in many cases where new roads and housing estates, for example, which had not yet appeared on Ordnance Survey maps, are shown on Soviet maps. Often these have the street names omitted, indicating that the cartographer had only the aerial image to hand and not the latest street directory.

As to why so much time, effort and money was expended on this gigantic project for over fifty years, we can only speculate. The concentration on depicting civil rather than military information suggests that these were intended not as invasion maps, but as necessary tools to manage and control the economic and industrial activity of Western cities after their eventual peaceful conversion to communism. But who can say?

Wasn’t the West doing the same thing during the Cold War?

Of course, mapping the territory of a potential enemy was nothing new and not restricted to the Soviet Union. But during the Cold War, the West, generally, was far more selective about where they mapped and what they showed. Whereas the Soviet Union produced huge numbers of city plans, each of which shows minute detail of all aspects of a city (regardless of military significance), the West tended to focus on places of particular interest – and included on their maps only what was relevant to the purpose.     

10_Soviet_Maribor

 

11_NGA_Maribor

Two views of Maribor, Former Yugoslavia (now Slovenia).

Top, A typical Soviet military city plan, showing as much information as possible (1:10,000, 1975). Below, A greatly simplified plan, produced by USA military, concentrating on the major features. (1:20,000, 1993).]

John Davies is editor of Sheetlines, the journal of Charles Close Society for the Study of Ordnance Survey Maps (www.CharlesCloseSociety.org) and is co-author with Dr Alex Kent of The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World, to be published by University of Chicago Press in September 2017 (http://redatlasbook.com/)

15 February 2017

How Maps Got Into the Movies

This special guest blog post by the film historian Roland-François Lack looks at an entirely new cartographic genre which emerged during the 20th century - the cinema map or cine-map. 

'Maps first appeared in films as narrative props or background décor. Only rarely, in the early years, could any detail on the map be read, but in what I think is the earliest surviving film to show a map, Georges Méliès's 1898 La Lune à un mètre or The Astronomer's Dream, we can see the disproportionately large outline of France on the globe in the astronomer's study.

Rf1

La Lune à un mètre (Georges Méliès 1898)

The distortion foregrounds France as the source, and possibly setting, of Méliès's film. This is just the first of cinema's many cartographic manipulations to come, altering the pro-filmic reality for narrative effect.

The first map in a film I have seen on which a place name can be read is in Pathé's Le Fils du diable fait la noce à Paris, from 1906. A map is brought out in support of a recommendation that the Devil's sick son should travel to recover his spirits. London, Antwerp, Berlin, Berne and Rome are marked on the map, but it is to Paris, in the centre, that everyone points as the ideal destination:

Rf2

Le Fils du diable fait la noce à Paris (Pathé production 1906)

These maps are confections created for the films in which they figure. Where a map is merely part of the décor it is likely to be a found map, used to give realism to the setting, as in this 1908 Gaumont film showing a schoolroom:

Rf3

Les Chansons ont leur destin (Gaumont production 1908)

Cinema's interest in maps intensified when it discovered the close-up. Spectators could then read the map as they read the film, helped often by a finger pointing to the parts most relevant to the narrative, as here, in a 1910 Gaumont film about Christopher Columbus:

Rf4

Christophe Colomb (Gaumont production 1910)

This cartographic close-up is the earliest I have found, and also the first instance where the filmmakers have put effort into finding an historically appropriate prop. The map is based on a fifteenth-century Imago Mundi, or more exactly on the simplified versions of that map found in nineteenth-century accounts of medieval cartography.

Travel, including adventurous exploration,  is one of the four major narrative contexts in which films show maps. Of the others, I have already mentioned the schoolroom, where maps are generally background décor. Crime, whether in its preparation or investigation, also demands an attention to maps, but the narrative context that has most often put maps on screen is war. The cinematic representation of the 1914-1918 war brought with it an intensification of cartographic scrutiny. In war rooms and at the Front soldiers are shown studying maps:

Rf5

Une page de gloire (Léonce Perret 1915)

The need to explain military action to those at home initiated a different mode of cartographic representation, the animated map. Now a convention in narrative fictions, it has its origins in documentaries such as F. Percy Smith's Fight For the Dardanelles (1915):

Rf6

Fight For the Dardanelles (F. Percy Smith 1915)

Though manipulations of this kind have, in the twenty-first century, moved beyond the merely cinematic, the animated map remains the cinema's major contribution to cartography. The British Library's exhibition features two remarkable examples, McLaren and Biggar's Hell Unlimited (1936) and the opening sequence from Casablanca (1942), as testimony to that contribution.'

If you enjoyed this blog you'll enjoy the Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line articles contained in our exhibition webspace. Roland-François Lack's Cine-tourist site is fantastic, and very easy to lose oneself in. I'd like to say a big thank you to Roland-Francois for all the advice he has provided on maps in film over the past 18 months.