Maps and views blog

4 posts from December 2014

18 December 2014

George III architectural plans

The 1780s were  very difficult years  for George III.  In addition to the political turbulence and the personal  trauma that he suffered at the time of the loss of the American colonies in 1783, he had a period of severe mental illness in 1788-9.  During this period he seems to have found solace and escape  in concentrating on building up his private collection of maps and views and by the end of the decade these were housed in the room next to his bedroom in Buckingham House.  Most of this collection of maps and views is now in the British Library and known as the King’s topographical Collection.

By the end of the decade George was consulting some of his collection for very practical ends.  Following his recovery from mental illness in 1789, the King thought of abdicating and retiring to Hanover.  The collection includes a volume of plans of palaces in and around Hanover dating from 1763 (now Maps 7. Tab. 17.).  While George might originally have asked for the volume to be sent from Hanover, which he never visited, out of curiosity (he was passionately interested in architecture), by the summer of  1789 he must have been focused in investigating his possible future living quarters.

AB20123-72 shelfmark Maps 7 Tab 17
J.H. Schmidt, from 'Five Plans of the Royal Palace in Hanover', 1763. British Library Maps 7.TAB.17.

Be that as it may, about 15 years ago a folded piece of paper was found inserted loose in one of the plans. On one side was an order of service dated Friday 10 July which has since been identified as relating to a service in St George’s Chapel, Windsor on that day in 1785.  On the other side was a pencilled measured plan and on the back was a roughly drawn inked plan for a grand palace.  Looking more closely, no less than four grand staircases are sketched in, with long corridors instead of a suite of rooms.  This design, for a very grand palace, is very different in its vigorous character and strange content from the pencilled plan on the other side. It is difficult to imagine who could have drawn and inserted the plan other than the King: the combination of order of service and of architectural plans is very telling as is the fact that it was found where it was.  Though George allowed distinguished contemporaries access to his collections, it is unlikely that a courtier would leave such an item or that an English visitor would be interested in Hanoverian palaces.  The is also a touch of the manic in the way in which the inked plan is drawn.

George III, Sketch of a palace floor plan, 1785-9. British Library Maps 7.TAB.17

So perhaps one can reconstruct what happened – not with certainty but with a strong degree of possibility.  And that is that one day – or perhaps sleepless night – George decided to look at the volume of plans.  One plan, showing a floor of the town palace in Hanover and includes a flap with proposals for changes, caught his eye – but then he was disturbed or had to leave.  He inserted the first thing that  came to hand as a bookmark, intending to return to the volume.

However the trauma passed and the French Revolution and the consequent threat of invasion by France inaugurated a period of great popularity for George III in Great Britain.  All thoughts of abdicating and retiring to Hanover were forgotten – as was the volume of plans of Hanover with its very personal bookmark.

Peter Barber

Support the King's Topographical Collection here.

15 December 2014

England and the North-East Passage

This gripping guest blog, in conjunction with our current Arctic exhibition, has been generously provided by historian James Evans. James is author of  Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage of Discovery that Transformed Tudor England.

There ‘remained only one way to discover’, the Bristol merchant Robert Thorne told fellow Englishmen early in the 16th century, ‘which is into the north’.

Officials and merchants had seen the wealth amassed in Spain and Portugal by the discovery of new routes across the ocean. But while the Pope tried to reserve all non-Christian lands to the Iberian nations, the English insisted this could apply only to territories reached by sailing south.

To the unexplored north England claimed a God-given right. After all, John Cabot had discovered North America for the English in the 15th century, soon after Columbus’s epochal voyage. And many thought there must be a passage here to ‘Cathay’, as China was then known, to match that in the south – because land on the earth was bound to be balanced. How else would it spin straight?

Thorne world map

Robert Thorne, Orbis Universalis Descriptio. London, 1582. British Library C.23.b.35.

Thorne wrote a tract, and drew a map, to illustrate his ideas. He argued the English could sail due north, across the Pole, then descend towards undiscovered lands in the Pacific. He admitted that many considered this impossible, the sea in the far north being ‘all ice’, the cold ‘so great that none can suffer it’. But others believed ice formed only near land, while open ocean, across the top of the world, would remain clear.

Thorne tried to organise a voyage to test the idea, but died before he could. Not until Henry VIII had died too did power pass to men who truly believed in the value of exploration. Under Edward VI, Cabot’s son, Sebastian, was lured back from Spain – and it was he who oversaw, in 1553, a major English attempt to find a northern passage.

Which way would they go? North-west? North-east? Or directly north? The watching Spanish ambassador fretted, rightly, that England was ‘seeking the road to the Indies’. But he didn’t know whether the north could offer one. No one did. The lack of knowledge about this part of the world is shown on a map made for Henry VIII by Jean Rotz, on which huge empty spaces reveal the ignorance which existed concerning the north parts of the world.

Rotz-D Hem

Jean Rotz, [Double hemisphere world map], from A Boke of Idrography, London, 1545. British Library Royal MS 20 E IX

The 1553 crews went north-east, hoping a passage this way would be an ‘easy matter’. But of course it wasn’t. The world was in the grip of what has become known as the ‘Little Ice Age’, and ice, to the north, was more extensive than it is now. It was an extraordinary venture, which began trade with Russia via the White Sea – a region carefully charted by William Borough, who sailed as a teenager – and it set an important example. But it failed to find a northern passage.

The ship belonging to the expedition captain, Sir Hugh Willoughby, became hopelessly lost. The land ‘lay not’, he wrote in frustration, ‘as the globe made mention’. His men tried to see out the winter. His log, today in the British Library, records their desperate final weeks, locked in what it describes as a ‘haven of death’.

AWilloughby log

 Sir Hugh Willoughby, [Extract from a journal of a journey to Cathay, c. 1554], British Library Cotton MS Otho E VIII

The company set up then in England, whose monopoly extended across the north, continued to look north-east. Further attempts were made by Stephen Borough (William’s older brother), and later by Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman. But the landmass pushed them further north, as they moved east, and the ice proved impenetrable.

Attention, in England, switched to the north-west, where Martin Frobisher thought discovery ‘the only thing of the World’ left undone to make a man rich and famous. (The map-maker Abraham Ortelius produced the first Atlas in 1570 – the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum – and his page on the Arctic north showed clear passages to both north-west and north-east.)

SmallOrtelius World Map
Abraham Ortelius, 'Typus Orbis Terrarum', from Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Antwerp, 1570-84.

The British Library's free exhibition Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage, is now open.

04 December 2014

Maps in the 20th century: Disney World UK

In the 'Roaring Twenties' US tourists flocked to the UK in their droves to sample and rediscover their literary language through famous sites of English literature.

English LiteratureRand McNally, A Pictorial Chart of English Literature, Compiled by Ethel Earl Wylie. Chicago, 1929. British Library Maps 1080.(78.).

Catering to this audience, the American map publisher Rand McNally produced a chart of English literature in 1929. It visualised England and Wales almost as if they were a theme park, a literary Alton Towers.  Think ‘Shakespeare Land’ or ‘The Bronte adventure’. Note, however, the absence of Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. This theme park did not admit the avant garde. No 'Lawrence Log-flume' here thank you very much.

ZoomEnglish Literature

The map is especially interesting when placed alongside another tourist map by Rand McNally, produced about 50 years later for Brits making the reciprocal journey to Florida in the 1980s (but by that time by plane, not passenger liner).

Rand McNally, Orlando including Walt Disney World [detail]. Chicago, 1994. British Library Maps 220.a.737 

Walt Disney World opened in 1971 and quickly became the most popular tourist destination in the entire world. In contrast to the 1929 literary England and Wales adventure, Walt Disney World is not shown as a theme park. It is shown as a normal, straightforward town with roads, bridges, boundaries and transit stops. There is essentially nothing to distinguish it from the nearby areas of Kissimmee or St Cloud.

This is the great thing about maps. They are incredibly focused on their purpose. The 1980s British tourist needed the map to find his and her way. The American tourist in the late 1920s wanted to savour and relive the experience of literary England through the map. Both maps worked their magic with consummate ease.

A History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps is published by the British Library

01 December 2014

The Draw of the Arctic

Two centuries ago Britain became re-interested in the search for the Northwest Passage, the so-called ‘mariners' philosopher's stone’. By 1815 it had, or at least should have, become abundantly clear (from the centuries of failure) that an Arctic route to the Indies was not a viable trade route, and besides, Britain no longer really needed it, having broken the Iberian monopoly over world sea routes. 

But there were other motivations. Britain did not like to be beaten. Indeed it had just beaten Napoleon at Waterloo. It was top dog, pumped and full of confidence, and with an inordinate number of spare men, ships and equipment after the end of war with France.

The draw of the Arctic is visible in the newspapers, the literature, and the art of the time. The Arctic vision coloured – or rather - chilled Europe. John Ross and Edward Parry’s expedition of 1818 was the first such large venture of this new age. Preparations on the Thames at Deptford became a public spectacle. The expedition came to nought (though had Ross continued in the direction he’d been going history might have judged him rather better). The account of the voyage would nevertheless become a bestseller, lavishly produced often with gilt edged pages and crisp colour lithographs.


'First communication with the natives of Prince Regent's Bay...' from John Ross , A Voyage of Discovery …enquiring into the possibility of a North-West Passage. London, 1819.

Other literary works cast the Arctic infatuation in a different light. Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein', published the year of Ross’s expedition, tapped into the fears of unease of the frozen wastes in a similar way medieval maps had placed the unspeakable monsters of legend at the world’s edges. In the story, the monster disappears into the darkness.

Lynd Ward, wood engraved illustration for Frankenstein (New York: Smith & Haas, 1934).

This horror and awe was expressed differently by the Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich’s arresting 1823-4 canvas showing the crushing of HMS Griper, one of the ships of Parry’s 1819 expedition. This drastic and uncomfortable painting summed up the power of nature expressed through the ice. The image was perhaps a bit too much for British society who had hitherto positioned themselves far more centrally in the story of the Arctic than the pathetic little ship, right of centre, about to be destroyed by the ice. 

Caspar David Friedrich, Das Eismeer, oil on canvas, 1823-4. Kunsthalle, Hamburg 

The British Library's free exhibition Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage is now open.