Maps and views blog

07 July 2010

Magnificent maps that didn't make the exhibition #4

[Map of Jiangxi Province, China]
Manuscript on silk, 40 x 742 cm. 
British Library Add.MS 16356

This map is one of the British Library's greatest treasures. It is a set of maps of the province of Jiangxi in south eastern China (a detail of it is illustrated above). The map has been painted with incredible colours and delicacy onto silk, which creates a mesmerising shimmering effect. Just look at the depth of those blues. The image doesn't show it, but the water has this amazing 'fish-scale' pattern effect to it.

We think that this map was intended for administrative use. It shows the historic divisions of the individual prefectures, the roads, rivers (this is a particularly wet part of China - the Yangtze river forms part of its northern boundary) and more importantly the river crossings. Towns are shown as walled settlements, with government buildings and Confucian schools afforded special prominence. Administrative, practical stuff. So why is it so beautiful?

The idea that functionality and artistry are mutually inclusive is something we've explored in the exhibition. When you think about it, maps can be both useful and beautiful. There has to be an element of artistry in a map for it to fulfil its purpose, even if it is the mere act of drawing or engraving onto a flat surface. These are artistic techniques! And do not forget that administrative maps such as the Jiangxi map would have been looked at and used by high-ranking officials, who would have demanded the highest standards of decoration, taste and beauty, even in their maps.

There are plenty of examples of these maps in the 'Secretary of State's Room' area of the exhibition, including Mark Wood's beautiful watercolour of the Hughli River in India of 1785. Even so, it would have been great to have included the Jiangxi province map in the exhibition, but the map was not made for display on a wall but to be looked at in sections on a table, thus placing it outside the remit of the show. 

In fact, even if we had been able to display it, the map is over seven metres long, and short of draping it over the British Library building, we would have had some trouble squeezing it in.

May I convey my most profound sorrow and regret for this map not making it into Magnificent Maps. I do hope its non-inclusion has not offended anyone, but may its appearance here go some way to alleviating any pain that has been caused.  


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The map is beautiful. Your post is interesting in terms of giving an idea of the decision making process that goes behind selecting objects for display. The blog is an excellent way of compensating for items that could not be fit into the actual exhibition.

would it be possible to see an image of the fishscale pattern in this map at all? thank you.

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