29 May 2010
A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales...
by William Smith,
Copperplate engraving on 15 sheets, 258 x 180 cm.
British Library Maps K.Top 5.76.6.TAB
The first of our magnificent maps that didn't make the final cut is the first geological map of England and Wales, made by William Smith in 1815. One of the British Library's examples was owned by King George III. I've started with this map partly in order to quell any unrest at its non-inclusion, but also to emphasise how oh so close it was to making it.
The life work of amateur geologist William Smith (1769-1839) has been compellingly told in Simon Winchester's The Map That Changed the World (London, 2001). Smith was one of a new breed of late eighteenth-century scientists to see the earth as comprising the compressed remains of the past. The idea of a world many millions of years older than traditionally thought held big implications, both for religious denominations, and for fossil-fuel powered Britain in the early nineteenth-century. Smith's map was the first national map to express this visually by indicating different rock types and strata using colour, added by hand. These subtle shades of colour lend the map an almost accidental elegance and beauty.
Maps don't often herald change, they reflect it. Smith was one of those driven, inspired figures occasionally encountered in history, and his achievement in producing the map was immense, but he wasn't alone in pioneering the study of geology. James Hutton, for example, had published an important paper on geology in 1785, whilst Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart had already produced a geological map of the environs of Paris in 1810-11. Smith's achievements weren't properly acknowledged at the time, but perhaps they have been overstated since.
So to the reason for its non-choosing. Smith's is a wonderful map, and would have been perfect for the 'school area' of the exhibition because of its contrubution to understanding and the advancement of knowledge. Unfortunately, at over 2.5 metres tall, it was just too big for the particular part of the gallery.
And so, unlucky William Smith, the fates have conspired against you once more.