Maps and views blog

21 February 2014

Enigmas and errors: 19th-century cataloguing of the King’s Topographical Collection part 1

The first printed catalogue of King George III’s Topographical Collection was published in 1829. It organised the 50,000 or so items geographically and alphabetically. At the same time, or slightly earlier, the collection was given shelfmarks beginning with ‘Maps K.Top.’ followed by a sequence of letters and numbers. It appears that when the King’s agents and librarians were buying for him they purchased bulk lots and volumes of views which they dis-bound and deconstructed and then reconstructed according to geographical region. Hence, drawings and prints by the same hand or from the same publication are spread across the entire collection.

Many of the works bear pencil or pen and ink inscriptions identifying the locations which, more often than not, were added by a later hand, not that of the artist, printmaker or cartographer. In some cases these identifying inscriptions appear to be in the hand of earlier owners, while a majority of others appear to be done by those looking after or ordering the collection, probably in the 1820s.

The only other time at which part of the collection was catalogued was in 1844 when the drawings and manuscript maps catalogue was published. Largely unchanged from the 1829 catalogue entries, they did however elaborate slightly on the titles of the works and provide dimensions. At some point the shelfmarks of large maps and rolls changed and in the 1940s the loose maps and drawings were bound in 235 guard volumes according to geographical region. Thereafter the catalogue was not rewritten or revised until 2013 when the current digitisation and cataloguing project began.

The cataloguing and ordering of this vast collection in the 1820s was bound to contain a few errors. It is the misidentification of locations, cataloguing errors and attribution oversights which this series of blogs will focus on. Errors in identification and attribution are not just interesting because they challenge the modern cataloguer to identify the correct subject or artist: they are interesting because they go some way to demonstrating how the works were ordered, labeled and catalogued in the 1820s.

1Image1BLOGFaçade formerly identified as Trinity Hospital, Guildford, pen and brown ink, around 1720-1770. British Library Maps K.Top.40.14.m.1.  Publicdomainlogo

One such item which has evaded propser identification is Maps K.Top.40.14.m.1. which was incorrectly catalogued as Trinity Hospital, Guildford [Illustration 1]. The drawing bears the inscription ‘Trinity Hospl founded by A.Bn Abbott at Guildford, Surrey' in pencil on the verso and was catalogued in 1829 as’ A drawn View of Trinity Hospital at Guildford’ and as ‘An outline view of Trinity Hospital at  Guildford’; drawn about 1720’ in 1844 [Illustrations 2 and 3]. The drawing is in brown ink on laid paper. There are no other similar drawings in the collection which might help to identify the hand or provenance.


Catalogue entry for Maps K.Top.40.14.m.1. in Catalogue of Maps, Prints, Drawings etc forming the geographical and topographical collection attached to the library of his late majesty King George the Third (London: 1829)  Publicdomainlogo


Catalogue entry for Maps K.Top.40.14.m.1. in Catalogue of the manuscript maps charts & plans and of the topographical drawings in the British Museum (London: 1844)  Publicdomainlogo

Trinity Hospital (sometimes called the Abbot’s Hospital) in Guildford as it appears today is quite different to the structure depicted in the drawing. For excellent photographs of the building see the British Listed Buildings Website:

Among the many differences the most noticeable are: the façade to the left of the gatehouse is three storeys in the drawing whereas the Guildford Hospital is two; the gatehouse itself is two windows wide in the drawing but only one in Guildford; the top of the gatehouse is crenellated in the drawing whereas it is not at Guildford. Despite recognising that changes to buildings occur, this degree of difference strongly suggests that the building in the drawing is not Trinity Hospital. The drawing depicts a Tudor gateway which shares similarities with examples at St James’s Palace, London and St John’s, Queens’ and King’s Colleges in Cambridge. However, despite extensive research, it has not been possible to identify the building depicted.

Although the incorrect identification was in place by 1829 it could have occurred at any time before this date and in this instance we cannot entirely blame the cataloguers. The handwriting which misidentifies the building is not typical of the inscriptions placed by George III’s librarians or British Museum staff. However, while the incorrect identification may have been an earlier error, it was not questioned when the 1829 and 1844 catalogue entries were written. This is especially surprising as there is an etching of the façade of Trinity Hospital at the next shelfmark Maps K.Top.40.14.m.2. [Illustration 4].

Trinity Hospital in Guildford, Surrey, etching, around 1780. British Library Maps K.Top.40.14.m.2.  Publicdomainlogo

A quick comparison of the two highlights the striking difference between the two gateways and facades depicted:

The page from the guard volume showing Maps K.Top.40.14.m.1. and Maps K.Top.40.14.m.2. together  Publicdomainlogo

This suggests that the 1829 cataloguers merely transcribed what they saw rather than questioning identification or attribution which in turn led to incorrect catalogue entries in some instances. One of the benefits of cataloguing and digitising the King’s Topographical Collection is the opportunity to re-evaluate the 19th-century cataloguing and make these unknown views, plans and drawings more visible in the hope that correct attributions and identifications can be attached to them.

The next blog in this series will look at the watercolour artist Charles John Mayle Whichelo and the recent discovery of a number of his drawings in the King’s Topographical Collection.

Alexandra Ault