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

03 December 2020

Bushfire maps of Australia

Last week another temperature record was set in Sydney, Australia – the overnight minimum temperature of 25.4 degrees Celsius was the highest ever for November, higher even than the historical daytime average for the month. This is one of a string of new records set there over recent years.

Three-day Heatwave Forecast

BBC weather forecast

Graphics courtesy of Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology, above, and BBC, below.

With heat comes the risk of bushfires, which have once again started to burn across the region, reminding us of the catastrophic fire season that was experienced last year - now known as ‘Black Summer’. In total an estimated area of between 18 and 24 million hectares burned - comparable in size to the area of Great Britain - with the loss of 34 lives, over 3,500 properties destroyed, and estimates ranging from one to three billion mammals, birds and reptiles killed.

This map depicts the state of fires in the region around Sydney on one of the worst days of the crisis, and was issued to the public through the New South Wales Rural Fire Service website to encourage evacuation from areas under immediate threat. The British Library imaging studios made a large format print from the file to be kept in the maps collection.

Potential fire spread prediction map

Detail of fire spread prediction map

Potential fire spread prediction for Saturday 21 December 2019, NSW Rural Fire Service. BL Maps X.17367.

The area shown extends around 150 miles from north to south. In particular the map indicates the plight of towns along the Great Western Highway in the Blue Mountains, to the west of Sydney, which are caught between bushfires to the north and to the south. Already the highway had been cut off by fire to the north-west of Katoomba, with the loss of many properties, and now the outskirts of Katoomba, Leura and Wentworth Falls came under threat from ember attack, forcing large numbers of inhabitants to evacuate to Sydney.

Detail of fire spread prediction map

Fortunately the worst did not come to pass, and over the following days back-burning operations – where controlled fires are started ahead of the oncoming blaze to deprive it of fuel – kept the fire fronts at bay. Some of these can be seen in irregular dark areas of burning to the north-east of Katoomba on a screenshot of the Rural Fire Service’s ‘Fires Near Me’ mobile site.

Fires Near Me app

Screen shot of Fires Near Me mobile webpage, NSW Rural Fire Service, 25 December 2019.

It was not until torrential rains fell in early February that these fires were finally extinguished.

Debate continues around what caused the fires to be so extreme. By June of 2019 record high temperatures and longstanding conditions of drought had led experts to warn of an extended fire season to come, and many attribute these underlying conditions to climate change.

Others also point the finger to an alleged reduction in the use of fire management techniques learned from, and still practised by, Indigenous people. This map of Arnhem Land in northern Australia shows the results of a collaboration between scientists and Indigenous people, where the frequency of ‘hot fires’ has been reduced in areas deliberately burned during the previous cold season.

Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia

Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia, Macquarie, 2005, fig.3.17. BL Maps 234.b.40.

Whichever factors led last year's fires to be so extreme, most agree that bushfires are an inevitable part of Australian life. An ambition harboured by many, perhaps, but that is yet to be achieved, is expressed by the author of a 1976 study, 'Bushfire: history, prevention, control' (BL HMNTS X.322/8372) - ‘Fire has been part of the Australian environment for a very long time. I hope that... this book conveys the sense that fire and man must live together, not in a master/servant relationship, but as co-habitants in a finely balanced environment.’

Only yesterday, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, declared, ‘Our planet is broken. Nature always strikes back and is doing so with gathering force and fury’. We can only hope that the fire season to come is not like the last.

25 November 2020

King's Topographical Collection: curator's pick

In October we released 18,000 digital images of early maps and views from the Topographical Collection of George III. View the collection on Flickr Commons, and access images via the maps and views' catalogue records on Explore. Here's my choice of five compelling maps from the collection. 

1. Plan of Manila, 1739.

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D. Antonio de Roxas, Manila, c. 1739

This is the only recorded example of this 1739 edition of the 1717 town plan of Manila in the Philippines. Manila was, and is, a key international centre of trade, and the map was actually produced in the town (in a tiny vignette we can see a copy being presented by the Spanish governor of the Philippines to King Philip V of Spain). There’s probably no better image of a bustling commercial site, proof that a town is not just about its architecture and layout, but its people and processes too. This map has additional resonance, because Manila was besieged and looted by the British in 1762, and annotations in the map’s bottom right refer to aspects of the battle. Could it be George himself annotating the map according to reports he had received of the battle? 

D. Antonio Fernandez de Roxas, TOPOGRAPHIA DE LA CIUDAD DE MANILA : CAPITAL de las yslas Philipinas

Manila: Hipoloto Ximenez, [around 1739].

Maps K.Top 116.40

2. Map and survey of Plymouth Harbour, 1780

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Matthew Dixon, Plan of Plymouth, 1780.

This is the map that reminds me most of the strong links between mathematics and art in maps. It’s a large and serious military drawing, officially commissioned and with an accompanying report, of a key strategic naval installation and site of British maritime strength and power. It was drawn up as part of the earliest mapping activities for what would become the Ordnance Survey a few years later, enacted in response to the threat of invasion from Napoleonic France. So why is it so stunningly and mesmerizingly beautiful? It’s a question that should infuriate everyone who sees maps purely as cold communicators of facts and 'data.'

Matthew Dixon, Colonel, surveyor.
‘A General Plan with a Project for the Defence of the Arsenals of Plymouth, / By Lieut: Colonel Dixon Chief Engineer of the Plymouth Division. Revised and corrected by Geo. Beck Jan. 1780.

Maps K.Top 11.79.2.TAB

 

3. Aquatint view of Kingston-upon-Thames, 1813

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Thomas Horner, Kingston-upon-Thames, 1813.

Thomas Horner, Kingston upon Thames. 1813

Maps K.Top 40.15.3.11.TAB

Is it a map or is it a view? What is that ominous large shadow looming in, Holbein-like, from stage left? Who cares! This is an intriguing and brilliantly composed aquatint print showing a collection of views of picturesque Kingston-upon-Thames. From above, in profile, from a distance away, it’s a multi-faceted image that invites us to dissolve our perception of the differences between vistas and to see them as a combined and rounded description of a place. Cartographic cubism! As Horner himself wrote, ‘…the whole, blended into one design by a picturesque fore-ground, forms a faithful view of the parish.’ It’s a joyous visual experience, with a few intrigues and little jokes (note the bungling surveyor- stonemasons in the foreground) thrown in for good measure.

4. India, 1619

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William Baffin, Map of the Mughal Empire, 1619.

This is a portentous map - the earliest British printed map of part of India. It marks the beginning of British cartographic involvement in India that would reach new levels of science-led imperial control through mapping by 1900. The Roe-Baffin map was produced following the earliest English trade mission to the Mughal empire. It has a stellar cast: Sir Thomas Roe, the diplomat who headed up the embassy. William Baffin, the navigator who went on to attempt to locate the North West Passage (Baffin Island is named after him). Reynold Elstrack, one of the earliest native English engravers.

The map was one of very few English-produced maps to provide a model for later Dutch atlas maps by Blaeu, Janssonius and others. English mapmakers were more often the copycats. The engraving of a Mughal seal has been expertly assessed by the British Library’s Dr Annabel Gallop.

William Baffin, 1584-1622, cartographer. A Description of East India conteyninge th'Empire of the Great Mogoll. / William Baffin deliniauit, et excudebat. ; Renold Elstrack sculp.

[London] : Are to be Sold in Pauls Church yarde. by Thomas Sterne Globemaker., [1619]

Maps K.Top 115.22

5. The United States of America, 1782

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John Mitchell, Map of the British Colonies in North America..., 1775 (updated to 1782).

This is a map with a story and a reminder of the power – and paranoia – that can be associated with maps. John Mitchell’s map of ‘the dominions of North America’ is a tremendous cartographic achievement in its level of description of this vast area. Yes, standing on the shoulders of earlier maps, but adding a vast quantity of descriptive notes and even including naming Native American nations (who were nevertheless ignored in what followed).

On another level, this late edition of the map is a piece of history, being the copy used by the British delegation at the 1782 Treaty of Paris where the terms of the peace following Britain’s defeat at the hands of the United States were established. The map has been marked up in red to show the lines of the new border the British would be happy with. But at the conference they realised that they didn’t have to cede quite as much as they had drawn. The map suggests that Upper Canada (much of modern-day Ontario) was also available to the USA. So later the British government ordered the British Museum to lock the map away so that nobody, particularly no inquisitive Americans, might see it and demand any more.

It was hidden from view until the early 20th century.  

John Mitchell, 1711-1768, cartograph.er. A MAP of the BRITISH COLONIES in North America…

[London] : Publish'd by the Author Feb.ry 13.th 1755 according to Act of Parliament : Printed for Jefferys & Faden Geographers to the KING at the corner of S.t Martins Lane Charing Cross London, [about 1775, with annotations to 1782].

Maps K.Top 118.49.b.

 

Tom Harper

 

13 November 2020

The King’s Topographical Collection wonders

You may already be aware with all the recent publicity surrounding the release of the first batch of images from the King’s Topographical Collection that this is indeed an incredible resource with countless unique maps and views. I thought I would share with you some of my favourite items which I think are wonderful examples you may encounter while browsing the collection. Fascinating not only because of the unusual format of some of the items or unexpected subject matter but also the fact that they provide a glimpse of what was interesting and worth collecting back in the 18th and 19th centuries. With 18,000 images available on Flickr there is plenty to discover!

 

Maps_k_top_63_40_level_2

Maps K.Top.63.40. Tour de Cordouan, a l'Entrée de la Garonne. About 1680. 

This 17th century intricate architectural drawing shows the structure of the Cordouan lighthouse (Phare de Cordouan). What is unusual about this drawing is the use of flaps which are pasted over a round base representing the building. These flaps can be lifted to reveal a detailed layout of the various levels of the lighthouse.

Phare de Cordouan is situated at sea near the mouth of the Gironde Estuary 4.3 miles off the French coast and was constructed in 1611 to Louis de Foix, the royal engineer’s design. The original structure comprised of five storeys and included the grand entrance hall, King’s chambers, a chapel, apartments for the keepers and, of course, the lantern itself. The entire building was richly ornamented with particular attention paid to grand décor and its unique design became a symbol of power. Phare de Cordouan is one of the oldest lighthouses in France and is still in use today.

 

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Maps K.Top.36.24.2.b. Plan of the most remarkable effects of the earthquake, which happened ye 27th of May, 1773; at the Birches, in the Parish of Buildwas and near Coalbrookdale in the County of Salop… 1773.

This unusual map represents an aftermath of a geological event which occurred in 1773 near the village of Buildwas in Shropshire. The eye-catching title resembles a sensationalist headline style although soon after the event it was established that the cause was a landslip rather than an earthquake - in the mapmaker’s defence the term earthquake was used occasionally to describe a landslip in the late 18th century. Whatever the cause, the map is a contemporary record of an event that significantly changed the local landscape and impacted the community.

It delineates the extent of the damage including the pre- and post- earthquake configuration of the area such as the road location, the old and the new course of the River Severn, as well as the chasms and areas where the ground was raised. The force of water damaged the existing bridge which was eventually replaced in 1796 by a cast iron bridge built to the design of the Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford (it was actually his first iron bridge). The map was published just four months after the event in the context of an inquiry into the reconstruction of the turnpike road and the river channel. 

 

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Maps K.Top.27.41.7. Fox's new floating bath, now lying opposite Surry Stairs, near Somerset Place, on the Middlesex Side of the Thames, for the Reception & Use of Bathers. About 1810. 

This rare ephemera from the beginning of the 19th century advertises an innovative and rather bizarre concept: a boat specifically constructed to serve as public baths. Conveniently moored on the River Thames in central London this floating facility would be ‘the compleatest and best adapted of its kind for bathing in England’.

The adventurous entrepreneur worked out all the logistics explained in the accompanying text. The floating baths would be made available on a subscription or a single-entry basis and serviced by watermen transporting the bathers to and from the boat. There was a promise of a pleasant experience in the stylish décor and even health benefits claiming that the facility was recommended by doctors. These were rather doubtful claims as bathing in the Thames surely could not be beneficial considering how polluted the River was in the 19th century. There is no record that such a boat was ever constructed but the idea was realised on a much larger scale later in the century when in the 1870s floating baths opened on the Westminster embankment with water filtering systems in place. 

 

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Maps K.Top.119.17. [A coloured chart of the upper part of Lake Erie at Fort Erie and a detailed plan of Fort Erie, together with three cross sectional drawings]. 1764. 

This manuscript plan of Fort Erie (Ontario, Canada) is a prime example of fine draughtsmanship. It has an artistic element to it with lot of attention paid to aesthetics. The plan incorporates the fortification elements drawn to different scales to fit the sheet without making it look overcrowded. Produced by Franz Pfister an engineer and an accomplished surveyor with a military purpose in mind, it provides an insight into 18th century fortification design techniques and shows in detail individual structures including cross sections and views of buildings.

Fort Erie was constructed on the north-western shore of Lake Erie in 1764 after the Seven Years’ War when Great Britain gained the territories in New France. It was the first British fort built in order to establish a communication network between the Niagara River and the Upper Great Lakes and played a significant role as a supply depot for the British troops during the American Revolution. 

 

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Maps K.Top.117.24.1.a. Sketch of the Northern Part of Africa Exhibiting the Geographical Information Collected by the African Association. Compiled by J. Rennell. 1790. & 1792.

This printed map is a great example that demonstrates the process by which maps were brought up to date. It was prepared for the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior of Africa and contains manuscript annotations displaying the new geographical detail acquired by Major Daniel Houghton during his expedition of 1790-1791. The updates include amendments to spelling of place names, corrections of positioning of settlements, the courses of rivers, as well as extent of lakes and mountain ranges.
The map along with the accompanying handwritten Memoir and a letter from Henry Beaufoy a secretary of the Association, to Sir Frederic Barnard, George III’s librarian, constitute a primary resource on Houghton’s expedition. The documents reveal that the expedition was not strictly a geographical enquiry. Major Houghton also investigated the feasibility of establishing a trade route, commercial prospects and potential demand for commodities which could be supplied by the British including military equipment and supply of ammunition.