Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians


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

24 September 2020

Admiralty Charts: good design in the analogue age

UK hydrographic charts published by the British Admiralty in the early twentieth century are notable for the high density of information compressed within their two dimensions, and for the harmonious blend of registers and visual perspectives they incorporate in the pursuit of clarity. Whilst documenting local visual navigation techniques handed down over the centuries, charts from this period also feature networks of lights, beacons and buoys more recently installed around the coastlines of the British Isles.

This example, first surveyed and published by the Admiralty in 1847, shows the bays of Long Island and Baltimore in West Cork, Ireland with information updated to 1909.

Admiralty Chart of Long Island and Baltimore Bays, Ireland

Detail of Admiralty Chart 2129, Long Island and Baltimore Bays, Ireland, 1909. BL Maps SEC.1.(2129.)

As the seabed rises towards land, the approaching navigator is assisted by depth soundings, and abbreviations that tell the composition of the seabed at each point – sand, shells, gravel... The original measurements were taken with a sounding line marked along its length in fathom intervals, that was dropped over the side of the survey vessel. The lead plummet at its end was covered with sticky pitch or tallow that brought up a sample of the sea floor beneath.

Some of these data points cluster around and almost interfere with the map title. Navigators would use these measurements to inform the plotting of their routes and, by dropping their own sounding lines, would attempt to pinpoint their location.

Admiralty Chart of Long Island and Baltimore Bays, Ireland

Along the bottom edge of the sheet, a sketch testifies to a tradition of visual navigation techniques that have persisted even through the introduction of electronic aids later in the century. ‘View A’ provides a perspective in silhouette of the entrance to Skull Harbour, and demonstrates how Cosheen Crag in the foreground should be lined up with Barnacleeve Gap on the horizon in order to avoid rocks at Castle Ground on the way in. This horizontal view nestles on the page between the scale bar and a compass rose, while further soundings caught in-between call for a vertical viewpoint.

Admiralty Chart of Long Island and Baltimore Bays, Ireland

The correct angle of approach to Skull Harbour is also marked with a line across the chart. A number of other sightlines bisect the chart at various points, guiding seafarers past areas of danger.

Admiralty Chart of Long Island and Baltimore Bays, Ireland

More recent networks of buoys, beacons and lights also appear - in an update to earlier editions a light has been added at the western entrance to Baltimore Harbour. The chart indicates a wide arc facing southwards and out to sea from which the light appears white, and the crossover point upon entering the harbour from which the same light shows red.

Admiralty Chart of Long Island and Baltimore Bays, Ireland

For a distance inland, just enough of the topography - relief, landmarks, buildings and communications - is provided that might be of use to a vessel and her crew, before the detail gradually rubs to a blank on the chart.

The visual attraction of these sheets lay in the skill of the production draughtsmen whose finished drawings were transferred to copperplate for printing. From the late 1960s a programme of modernisation was introduced to update Admiralty Charts with metric units, simplified lettering and colour washes – a palette of blues for different water depths, and buff for the land – a style that persists to this day.

18 September 2020

Fan-tastic way to keep cool

With the 2020 Tour de France coming to a head in Paris this weekend (20th September) the final stage is expected to be a very different affair without the usual cheering crowds so I thought I’d mark the occasion by writing a blog about a very peculiar and unusual item from our Maps collection, Eventail cycliste, Bois de Boulogne, Paris et ses environs (Maps C.24.e.27).


Eventail cycliste, Bois de Boulogne, Paris et ses environs. Leon Pouillot. Published in Paris by Hugo D'Alesi, ca. 1895. Maps C.24.e.27.

This awesome cartographic fan specifically designed for cyclists was produced around 1895, almost a decade before the first Tour de France race took place. It features a series of three maps of Paris drawn to different scales, one of which shows Paris and its environs and indicates recommended cycling routes. The map contains helpful details indicating whether the roads are paved or ordinary as well as distinguishing between the uphill and downhill routes. Train stations are also shown - very handy in case of a flat tyre emergency!


Detail: Map showing environs of Paris with cycling routes 

On the reverse of the fan there is a map of Bois de Boulogne, a popular spot for Parisian cyclists at the turn of the century. In Jean Beraud's painting Le Chalet du cycle au bois de Boulogne (circa 1900) the popularity of cycling can be seen, one can just imagine such a fan being used as a fashionable accessory by one of the elegant figures in his painting.


Verso of Eventail cycliste... featuring map of Bois de Boulogne. Paris, Hugo D'Alesi, ca. 1895. Maps C.24.e.27. 

On the final leg scheduled to take place this Sunday cyclists will cover a distance of 76 miles riding from Mantes-la-Jolie to Paris. If you take a closer look at the map depicting the street layout of the French capital you will be able to plot the route through central Paris all the way to the famous finish line on the Champs-Élysées. 


Detail: Map showing centre of Paris 

Perhaps a new tradition could be established - along with the trophy, future winners could be presented with a facsimile of the fan, surely a welcome gift after such a long ride. Wishing all the competitors the best of luck on Sunday! 

10 September 2020

J.B. Harley Research Fellowships in the History of Cartography

Jb Harley fellowships logo

The J.B. Harley Fellowships were set up in London in 1992 in memory of Brian Harley (1932-91). Prof. Harley was a leading thinker in the history of cartography, working in a range of areas including historical geography, the history of the Ordnance Survey and mapping ideology. Together with David Woodward he founded the History of Cartography project in the early 1980s.
J.B. Harley

 The Harley Fellowships, the only ones of their kind in Europe, are open to anyone pursuing advanced research in the history of cartography, irrespective of nationality, discipline or profession, who wishes to work in London and other parts of the United Kingdom.

While independent of them, the fellowships are run in association with the four institutions in the London area that, together, hold the greatest number of early maps, namely: British LibraryThe National Archives, National Maritime Museum, and Royal Geographical Society

A list of previous Harley fellows along with their research topics can be found here provides all the necessary information and answers many frequently asked questions. Email applications should be set to: by 1 November 2020.