Maps and views blog

03 November 2015

Magnificent Maps of New York

The British Library’s ongoing project to catalogue and digitise the King’s Topographical Collection, some 40,000 maps, prints and drawings collected by George III, has highlighted some extraordinary treasures.  The improved and up-dated catalogue records are now accessible to all, anywhere in the world, via the Library’s catalogue, Explore, and offer a springboard for enhanced study. 

Your donations to this and other projects enable us to digitise more of our collections, the results of which are invaluable.  One such example of further research using material digitised with help from donors is the recently published book by Richard H. Brown and Paul E. Cohen, Revolution. Mapping the Road to American Independence, 1755-1783, which features a number of maps from the K.Top.

Bernard Ratzer, PLAN of the CITY of NEW YORK, in North America Surveyed in the Years 1766 & 1767. [London: about 1770]. Copperplate engraving with hand colour. Maps K.Top.121.36.b.

This magnificent engraved map of New York was, prior to the current project, listed on one catalogue record with another map.  The original 1829 catalogue description called this map simply “Another Copy of ditto. A Roll” where ditto (actually Maps K.Top.121.36.a., a second edition of the map) was described, not incorrectly, as "A Plan of the City of New York and its Environs, surveyed and laid down by Lieut. B. Ratzer, 1766, 7, with a View of ditto; published by Jefferys and Faden, 1776. Two sheets".  However, the two maps are not the same and are deserving of separate listings.

Firstly, Maps K.Top.121.36.b. displays fine hand colour, while the other remains black and white, and this colour supports the theory that this particular example of map may have been made for presentation to George III; such careful and expensive embellishment may not have been offered to all.

In addition, Maps K.Top.121.36.b. is an example of the first state of the map, one of seemingly only four known examples of this first state, published in about 1770.  The first state can be identified by the lack of publishers’ imprint; thus the names Jefferys and Faden do not appear here as they do on the second state.  Although the map’s existence as a first state had been known to scholars for some time (it was listed by W. P. Cumming in his article ‘The Montresor‐Ratzer‐Sauthier sequence of maps of New York City, 1766–76’ in Imago Mundi in 1979 and then featured in subsequent works), this information was not reflected in the catalogue record.  The current project has remedied this fact; a correct date of publication is given for the map and the catalogue record now also cites important references to the map.

Tracking down other examples of the first state of the map has been a complicated part of the cataloguing process.

Cumming in Imago Mundi lists examples of the first state of the map held by the British Library, Alnwick Castle being the seat of the Duke of Northumberland, and the New York State Library at Albany.

Cohen and Robert Augustyn in their book, Manhattan in Maps 1527-1995, and Margaret Pritchard and Henry Taliaferro in their book, Degrees of Latitude. Mapping Colonial America (both of which reference an earlier work by Gloria-Gilda Deak, Picturing America 1497-1899 : prints, maps, and drawings bearing on the New World discoveries and on the development of the territory that is now the United States,) list only two known copies of the first state; at the British Library and the New York Historical Society.

A New York Times article by Michael Wilson entitled “Cunning, Care and Sheer Luck Save Rare Map” and published on January 11th 2011 refers to two copies of the first state of the map at the New York Historical Society (and the Society’s catalogue seems to confirm this by listing M36.1.3A and M36.1.3B as separate items) and one further example of the first state newly discovered, at the time of the article, at the Brooklyn Historical Society, in addition to the British Library example.

This seems to make six examples in total.

However, on closer inspection the New York State Library at Albany example is an 1873 copy by Robert Cochrane Bacot, published by Murphy and Bechtel, taking the known copies back down to five.  Then, the Alnwick example cited by Cumming may not actually be a first state of the map but rather a second; an example (incomplete) of the second state of the map with Percy family provenance was sold in recent years.  Hence, the conclusion of four known copies of the first state.

Why are these editions and dates of publication significant?  Well, in the case of this map, the 1770 date of the first edition places publication before the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War thus, as explained by Brown and Cohen, the smoke in the view beneath the map cannot relate to the Great Fire of New York of 1776 because it quite simply hadn’t happened yet.  With the commencement of war in 1776, demand for such a map was greater and more examples of the second state, published to meet that demand, have survived.

The attribution of the 1770 date of the first edition is based on a New-York Gazette advertisement for the map in October that year, which is referenced by Pritchard and Taliaferro. 

Another K.Top map to feature in Brown and Cohen’s book is a manuscript map of Albany by Thomas Sowers.  With Thomas Sowers’s name and the date, 1756, given in the elaborate key at upper left this map’s military context is that of the French and Indian War.  The map shows the position of the troops of "Major General Braddock", "Sir Peter Halkett" and "Colonel Dunbars" and is cited by Brown and Cohen as “the first to show Albany during this war”.

Thomas Sowers, PLAN, of the CITY, of ALBANY, in the PROVINCE, of, NEW, YORK. 1756. Manuscript pen and ink with wash colour. Maps K.Top.121.41.

The K.Top cataloguing and digitisation is ongoing thanks to the support of valued donors.  For further information about contributing to this exciting project please visit our website.

Kate Marshall