THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

4 posts from December 2016

21 December 2016

Festive Fairyland

The Ancient Mappe of Fairyland was published in London in 1918. It shows a vivid fantasy island inhabited by a riotous range of make-believe characters from Peter Pan and Puss-in-Boots to Hansel, Gretel and Three Blind Mice. You can see the original map in our current map exhibition, as well as viewing a larger online version here.

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But why does Santa Claus not appear on the map? The answer, of course, is that unlike these fantastical characters, Santa is emphatically REAL. 

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However, since every fantasy contains a hint of reality, and to honour Fairyland's mapmaker - the appropriately named Bernard Sleigh - here is Santa, instated on the map in the icy north where he belongs.

With festive greetings from everyone here at the British Library's Map Library.

 

 

 

12 December 2016

Maps & scrap metal

As was announced here yesterday, the British Library has acquired important additions to its collection in the form of 9 sheets of copper, discovered in the possession of a scrap metal dealer. Scrap value ÂŁ3.60 per kilo, but historical significance and research value far more considerable.

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Detail of an engraved copper plate for a map by James Rennell, published in 1780.

The 9 engraved copper plates were used to print maps of India for the use of the East India Company (EIC) during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The archive of the EIC, the India Office records and map collection was passed to the British Library in 1984 where it resides today. How the copper plates came to be reunited with this archive is a fascinating story which reveals a lot about the custodial history of the archives of British government as well as changing perceptions of maps.

Our recent purchase of nine copper plates was as follows: four plates used to print trigonometrical diagrams of William Lambton’s first survey of Malabar and Coromandel, begun in 1802; one triangulation diagram of 1827 by Lambton and his successor George Everest (he of highest mountain fame); three (of four) plates for James Rennell’s (1742-1830) ‘Map of Hindoostan’ (1788); and finally a single plate for a map included in James Rennell’s ‘Bengal Atlas’ of 1780.

These plates enable us to complete sets of copper plates already held in the India Office map collection, alongside another copper plate which had been purchased in 1988.

How did they come to be dispersed in the first place? Well this is one of the most interesting parts of the story. Dr Andrew Cook, former India Office archivist, was able to sketch out the story for me, referencing Antonia Moon’s article of the East India Company records published in the British Records Association Journal ‘Archives (October 2008).

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View of the East India House, Leadenhall Street, London, 1796.

The plates seem to have been with the EIC in the 1830s in East India House, Leadenhall Street, London. In 1860 the EIC archives were due to move from there to the New India Office building in Whitehall, but because this building was unfinished when the old premises were sold, the archives went to temporary storage in the Westminster Palace Hotel nearby.  It is at this point that a number of the copper plates were apparently re-routed via the scrap metal trade, where they would remain for over a century.

In 1988 Dr Cook was tipped-off about a copper plate in the possession of a Norfolk farmer, who was looking to turn it into a mudguard for the trailer of his tractor. Upon visiting Norfolk, and examining the plate on the pool table of a local working man’s club, Dr Cook identified it as a plate from Rennell’s  â€˜Bengal Atlas’ and acquired it for the collection. The nine plates more recently purchased are further miracles of survival. 

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James Rennell, An engraved copper plate for 'A map of North Bahar...', London, c. 1779.

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James Rennell, 'A map of North Bahar...from The Bengal Atlas, London, 1780. Maps 145.d.26.

The uniting of various sets of engraving plates enables us to study in greater depth the printing and publishing history of some of the most powerful and significant imperial cartographic projects of the 18th and 19th centuries. It also shines light on the complex history of custodianship and cartography during the 19th century.

 

08 December 2016

MacDonald Gill: original drawing goes on show today

One of the key exhibits in Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line - in fact one of the key maps of the 20th century - is a world map of 1942 by MacDonald Gill. Called 'The "Time and Tide" map of the Atlantic Charter', the map was published (in Time and Tide magazine) to commemorate the signing of a wartime agreement between Britain and the United States of America in August 1941.

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MacDonald Gill,  The "Time and Tide" Map of the Atlantic Charter.London, 1942. British Library Maps 950.(211.).

The treaty, which was agreed by Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt on a warship moored off Newfoundland, set out their aspirations for a post-war peace, including self-determination and global economic freedom. This symbol of friendly co-operation between Britain and the USA was designed as a threat to the Axis powers, for the USA was not at that time at war with them. The 'special relationship' dates from here.

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The map brilliantly illustrates a world, unified under the sun and with images of trade and prosperity. It is a post-war Utopian vision that has been made possible by the treaty.

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MacDonald Gill, ' The Atlantic Charter', 1942. Private collection.

MacDonald Gill was a highly successful British illustrator who produced work for customers as varied as London Transport, the Tea Market Expansion Board, Cable & Wireless Ltd., and St. Andrew's church, Sunderland.

He was a particularly skillful draftsman, as visitors to Drawing the Line can see from today when the original pen sketch for the Atlantic Charter replaces the printed version on display. As Gill experts Caroline Walker and Andrew Johnston have noted, Gill seems to have applied ink directly to the paper without any need for preparatory sketches or guide lines, and there isn't a smear of Tippex in sight.

Even more amazingly, the drawing has original signatures of Churchill and Roosevelt pasted onto it.

Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line is open until 1 March.

05 December 2016

Map: friend or foe?

Our relationships with maps changed very dramatically in many different ways in the 20th century. One of the important changes is not only that maps became more widespread and familiar, but how that affected our relationships with them. The examples in the exhibition richly illustrate many of these changes, but one trend I would like to focus on here is the recognition that the power of maps became increasingly hidden as they became more accurate and realistic.

Perhaps the most iconic example in the exhibition is the Van Sant first map of the earth from space that appeared in Scientific American in 1990. This immense technological achievement has often been described as “showing the real world as it appears from space” (www.tomvansant.com). But it was also a huge artistic achievement. And it both symbolised and contributed to the decline of the traditional map maker. This is a kind of photograph, and photographs don’t lie.

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But think about this claim for just a moment as you look at it: no clouds; daylight around the whole planet; the Atlantic ice at its summer limit. This image is, as the article recognises, “equal parts software and artistic judgement”. Is this “the real world as it appears from space”? Or is it an interpretation, much like any other map? There is no doubt that publication of this image marked a massive milestone for maps in the 20th century. It seems to be so very different from imperial propaganda maps for example. And yet, as the exhibition explores, maps are by nature unreliable witnesses – misleading their readers as well as informing them.

The label ‘critical cartography’ was coined in the 20th century to describe a way of looking at maps. Critical geographers questioned their hidden assumptions and compromises, and revealed their inherent unreliability and partial truth. They did so not to invalidate maps, but to understand their power more thoroughly. This approach shared much with ‘critical’ developments in the 20th century in other areas of life, such as epic theatre, literary theory, cultural geography, and educational policy.

The exhibition explores the profound incursion of maps into everyday life in the 20th century. At the same time, the profound social, political and cultural changes often hidden in everyday life can also be seen in the development of maps and especially in understanding our relationship to them.

Further Reading:

Wood, Denis. 1992. The Power of Maps, New York/London: The Guilford Press

Harley. J.B. 2001. The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography. (Edited by Paul Laxton). Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Huw Rowlands