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

11 August 2020

Goad Maps on Layers of London

I'm very excited to announce that the georeferenced versions of the British Library's Goad fire insurance maps now form a layer on the Layers of London platform[https://www.layersoflondon.org/]. Their addition to the Layers of London web map interface would not have been possible without the addition of thousands of control points added by our georeferencer community. Thanks so much for all their help, please take a look at the maps in all their glory here

These control points allow the images to be positioned in geographical space and therefore viewed as layers alongside the other maps and data contributed by a wealth of esteemed organisations like British Historic Town Atlas, Historic Towns Trust, London Metropolitan Archives, British Library and MOLA, National Library of Scotland, the National Archives and Historic England [https://www.layersoflondon.org/map?layers=true] Most importantly they can be viewed alongside the contributions provided by the general public on the Layers of London platform. I am particularly pleased that the work of the Georeferencer volunteers has been used to enhance and enrich historical contributions on another volunteer-driven platform. The Goad maps are described on the Layers of London platform as follows:

'The British Library holds a comprehensive collection of fire insurance plans produced by the London-based firm Charles E. Goad Ltd. dating back to 1885. These plans were made for most important towns and cities of the British Isles at the scales of 1:480 (1 inch to 40 feet), as well as many foreign towns at 1:600 (1 inch to 50 feet).'

Goad_Layers of London1
Goad Maps layer in Layers of London platform, London and Tower bridges, 1887

The Goad maps are well-suited to the Layers of London platform as they depict a critical period in London's urban development:

'This detailed 1887 plan of London was originally produced to aid insurance companies in assessing fire risks. The building footprints, their use (commercial, residential, educational, etc.), the number of floors and the height of the building, as well as construction materials (and thus risk of burning) and special fire hazards (chemicals, kilns, ovens) were documented in order to estimate premiums. Names of individual businesses, property lines, and addresses were also often recorded. Together these maps provide a rich historical shapshot of the commercial activity and urban landscape of towns and cities at the time.'

Goad_Layers of London2
Goad Maps layer in Layers of London platform, Tower of London, 1887.

The project are now looking at potentially making several others sets of London maps available as layers on their platform, more details to follow. Finally, the Layers of London team have been kind enough to share the web map tiles that they created from the GeoTiff rasters back to the British Library. Thanks to the team for providing these. The tiles will save other projects time and Living with Machines[https://livingwithmachines.ac.uk/] are already keen to use them.

Gethin Rees 

05 August 2020

Mapping as poetry: looking at ‘Spatial Poem No.2, a fluxatlas’

Can maps express poetry? French architect Le Corbusier believed so. In Towards a New Architecture, his influential work on Modernism of 1923, he selected this image of an aeroplane cockpit - an aviation map surrounded by dials – to illustrate what he called poetic facts:

Poetry lies not only in the spoken or written word. The poetry of facts is stronger still. Objects which signify something, and which are arranged with talent and with tact, create a poetic fact.’

Vers une Architecture, Le Corbusier

Vers une Architecture, Le Corbusier, 1923. BL General Reference Collection 07815.h.26.

Could a map even be a poem? This recent purchase by the Map Library suggests it can.

Spatial Poem No.2, a fluxatlas, Chieko Shiomi, 1966

Spatial Poem No.2, a fluxatlas, Chieko Shiomi, 1966. Shelfmark not yet allocated. Image courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection.

Spatial Poem No.2, a fluxatlas, was made in 1966 by Japanese artist Chieko Shiomi (later Mieko). She had recently moved to New York to join colleagues in the Fluxus network, a community of artists around the world dedicated to experimental performance work, whose members included George Maciunas (the founder), John Cage, Joseph Beuys, Richard Hamilton and Ian Hamilton Finlay. Shiomi organised a series of ‘Spatial Poem’ events, in which she invited Fluxus colleagues to perform a specific action and then post a response back to her in the mail. This map documents responses she received during the second event, and bears the following subtitle: ‘This is the record of various directions to which people were simultaneously moving or facing around 10pm (Greenwich time) October 15th 1965’.

In Shiomi’s own words,

There are time gaps, since this Event took place all over the Earth. I sent the participants a list of time gaps in different places and asked them to report what direction each of them was facing at the same particular moment. While there were simple reports such as they were facing the ceiling, a newspaper, or a television, there were also interesting interpretations and calculated performances. Maciunas sent a report saying that he brought a swivel chair into an elevator and pressed the button to go up. While the elevator was ascending, he was rotating at high speed on the chair. Thus he insisted that he was directed toward all three hundred and sixty degrees while ascending. Somebody else reported that his direction varied because he was chasing a mouse that had entered the bedroom. Or a person told me he was "going from his 4th glass of beer to his 5th glass of beer," and yet another reported that she was "going in the direction of simplification." [Text courtesy MOMA].

Portrait of Chieko Shiomi

Portrait of Chieko Shiomi at the first Spatial Poem event, 1965, New York. Image courtesy MOMA.

Visually, it's the sort of map you might encounter in a dream. Modern and ancient motifs appear side by side, and create an atmosphere at once familiar but strange. These two wind faces hark back to a World Map of Ptolemy from 1482.

Detail of Spatial Poem No.2

Detail of Ptolemy World Map, 1482

Details of Spatial Poem No.2 (above) and of Ptolemy World Map, 1482 (below). BL IC. 9304.

A woodcut figure, who hovers over Los Angeles and aims an early sextant at the Pacific Ocean, first appeared in 1677 in Nathaniel Colson’s The Mariners New Kalendar (BL General Reference Collection 8805.bb.35.). An earlier version of the image, reproduced below, is taken from John Seller’s Practical Navigation of 1669.

Detail of Spatial Poem No.2

Image from Practical Navigation, John Seller, 1669

Detail of Spatial Poem No.2 (above) and image from Practical Navigation, John Seller, 1669 (below). Image from Wikipedia.

A number of curious compass/clock devices adorn the map – one forms a cartouche with the map’s title, while others mark different times around the world. These have been adapted from the diagram of a sixteenth-century survey instrument used in the construction of mine shafts. The original appeared in De Re Metallica by Georgius Agricola in 1556.

Detail of Spatial Poem No.2

Detail of Spatial Poem No.2

Image from De Re Metallica, Georgius Agricola, 1556

Details of Spatial Poem No.2 (above) and image from De Re Metallica, Georgius Agricola, 1556 (below). Image courtesy Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Jumping forward through the centuries, a contemporary window pane in Copenhagen is shattered by a ball.

Detail of Spatial Poem No.2

Detail of Spatial Poem No.2.

Alongside this evocative mix of images, the text responses received by Shiomi have been ordered into shapes and spirals that convey the momentary locations, directions and population distribution of Fluxus members as well as any modern infographic.

Detail of Spatial Poem No.2

Detail of Spatial Poem No.2.

Returning to Le Corbusier’s words – if poetry is found in an object which signifies something and is laid out with talent and with tact, then surely it resides here in Shiomi’s map.

31 July 2020

The Subterranean World

For centuries scholars speculated about the Earth’s composition with many believing that our planet’s centre was occupied by an eternal inferno. By the mid-17th century geographers were attempting to describe man’s physical environment and maps played an important part in this process. The great minds were interested in and studied simultaneously a wide range of subjects including natural sciences, medicine, philosophy and religion during this era. This universal approach resulted in some rather unusual (even bizarre by today’s standards) theories – a combination of scientific and theological concepts. 

014496766

A model of the Earth showing network of fire channels connecting surface features with inferno located in the centre. Systema ideale pyrophylaciorum subterraneorum, quorum montes vulcanii, veluti, spiracula quædam existant. Amsterdam, 1665. 32.k.1, pp.180-181

One such fascinating work held by the British Library is Mundus Subterraneous (Subterranean World) compiled by the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. Published in 1665 in two volumes this pioneering work on the physical geography of the Earth fully embraced the comprehensive scholarship approach. Mundus Subterraneous was intended as a compendium of universal knowledge. Now it is not only a brilliant example of the range of scientific subjects of interest that a 17th century scholar would undertake, it more importantly demonstrates that around this time maps were recognised as a powerful scientific tool. In order to support his complex theories Kircher included in his work a series of maps providing an explanation of terrestrial phenomena. He based his thesis on various sources ranging from the classical authors and travel accounts including those sent by missionaries in the Andes in South America, as well as his own observations. His first hand investigation of the about-to-erupt Vesuvius crater demonstrates he was not just a typical armchair scholar, he actually had an inquisitive mind and whenever possible took the opportunity to expand his knowledge. 

014496738

Systema ideale quo exprimitur, aquarum per canales hydragogos subterraneos ex mari et in montium hydrophylacia protrusio, aquarumque subterrestrium per pyragogos canales concoctus. Amsterdam, 1665. 32.k.1, pp.174v-175

014496528
Tabula geographico-hydrographica motus oceani, currentes, abyssos, montes ignivomos in universo orbe indicans, notat hæc fig. abyssos montes vulcanios. Amsterdam, 1665. 32.k.1., pp. 124v-125

Kircher’s spectacular work contains maps which along with recognisable geography display some unusual features. In his vision of the surrounding world he considered the Earth as the centre of the Universe. In order to explain the surface features and geographical configurations observed in different parts of the world he proposed the existence of a network of subterranean communications – a system of channels which allow flow of the three elements: water, air and fire. Several maps in his work depict the Earth’s interior showing these underground structures.

014507166

Hydrophylacium Africæ precipuum, in Montibus Lunæ Situm, Lacus et Flumina præcipua fundens. ubi et nova inventio Originis Nili describitur. Amsterdam, 1678. 460.e.9., pp.72-73

014507125

Typus hydrophylacii intra Alpes Rhæticas, quod fundit totius Europæ celebrrima flumina ; uti patet. Amsterdam, 1678. 460.e.9., p.70

The subjects explained in the accompanied cartographic material include the underground distribution of fire, the mechanics of volcanos and the existence of hot springs. The maps in Kircher’s book also depict the subterranean origin of lakes and rivers, and the circulation of water in oceans including the currents and whirlpools (providing the Norwegian maelstrom and the whirlpools in the Polar Regions as examples). 

014507402

Descriptio Vorticis Norvegiæ et Bothniæ eorumqe mirabilium effectuum, quos in fluxu et refluxu operantur. Amsterdam, 1678. 460.e.9., p.152

014503905

Poli Arctici constitutio. Amstelodami,1665. 505.ee.4., p.160

With its bold new scientific theories and the beautifully engraved maps Mundus subterraneus was a huge success and was re-published several times. Kircher’s work popularised the use of cartographic materials in publications on natural sciences and influenced the development of the Earth sciences including geology, hydrology and geophysics.