06 December 2022
Norden and Van den Keere: Two seventeenth century atlases digitised and online
Two bound sets of maps from the British Library’s core collection of early modern English cartography have recently been digitised and placed online. Harley MS 3749 is a series of 18 hand-drawn maps of parts of the Royal estate at Windsor, produced in 1607 by the English surveyor, mapmaker and author John Norden (c. 1547-1625).
Harley MS 3813 is a collection of 37 (of an original 44) small printed maps of English and Welsh counties and areas of Ireland and Scotland, engraved by the Flemish artist Pieter Van den Keere (1571-c. 1646) and printed at around the same time as Norden’s work. Their histories are entwined in various ways.
Both sets of maps ended up in the collection of Robert (1661-1724) and Edward (1689-1741) Harley, the 1st and 2nd Earls of Oxford, thousands of manuscripts, printed books and associated materials which became one of the founding collections of the British Museum in 1753. Norden’s work, produced for and originally owned by James VI and I, came into the Harleys’ possession in 1710, whilst Van der Keere’s maps reached the collection in 1725.
In addition to their shared provenance, it is interesting to note that the two mapmakers knew and worked with each other. As well as his surveying work and devotional writing, Norden conceived of a grand multi-volume county-by-county geography or ‘chorography’ of Britain, having recognised, like others, the public appetite for maps and geographical writings following the success of Christopher Saxton’s atlas of 1579. Norden’s Speculum Britannia was not completed, but he started work on a number of counties, and even published some of them. The first published county, in 1593, was Middlesex, containing maps including ones of London and Westminster engraved by one Pieter Van den Keere.
Van den Keere would become one of the most important engravers of the 17th century. He had moved to London in 1584, and was apprenticed to the London-based Dutch engraver Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612). He left London for Amsterdam in 1593.
Harley MS 3813 is one of several ‘proof’ sets of small county maps copied from Saxton’s and others’ maps of parts of Britain. It is commonly thought of as the blueprint for a mooted atlas of Britain along similar lines of Norden’s Speculum. Writing in 1972, Helen Wallis believed that it might have been Van Den Keere’s collaboration with Norden that inspired him. The Harley example has been finely hand-coloured and contains hand-written descriptions on the topography and gentry of each county (another set in the Royal Geographical Society has the same handwritten text), suggesting the role of a mock-up of what such a publication might look like.
The date of 1599 appears on three maps and it is sensible to assume that Van den Keere engraved them all around this time. But he didn't print them until 1605 or later, observed R.A. Skelton in 1970, due to the evidence of the paper used. The maps were not officially published until 1617 in an illustrated abridgment of Camden’s Britannia by the Amsterdam publisher Blaeu.
For whatever reason, neither Van den Keere’s or Norden’s projects properly got off the ground. The work which eventually sated the English appetite for maps was John Speed’s Theatre of the empire of Great Britaine of 1611-12, which incidentally included county maps engraved by Van den Keere's former teacher Jodocus Hondius. Speed’s Middlesex map (above) even incorporated copies of the Van den Keere-engraved London and Westminster maps that had appeared in Norden’s Speculum... Middlesex of two decades earlier.
Norden’s little atlas of Windsor royal parks (Harley MS 3749) was the sort of project Norden turned to following the stalling of his Speculum. It is a bespoke and exclusive product drawn on vellum, showing for the royal landowners’ gratification their palaces and deer-stocked parks. This tradition of manuscript mapping of private estates would extend into the 20th century, but county atlases such as Van den Keere’s became in many ways the principal English cartographic output, certainly up to the end of the 18th century. This is proven by the strong afterlife of Van den Keere’s small county maps, which were reissued in various forms, including as a 'minature Speed atlas' (despite their having preceded Speed) up to 1676.
Despite their obvious differences, the two Harley volumes have displayed an oddly close bond down the centuries, right up to the present day with their digitisation and placing online together. This might not have been the case had they suffered the fate that befell the rest of the Harleian collection in 1890 when, as part of a deal between the British Museum’s Departments of Printed Books and Manuscripts, the printed and manuscript material was separated and apportioned between the two.
With this in mind, it is serendipitous that the two atlases remain a just few shelves away from each other, albeit one a printed anomaly within a collection of the written and drawn.
- Laurence Worms & Ashley Baynton-Williams, British map engravers: a dictionary of engravers, lithographers and their principal employers to 1850 (London: Rare Book Society, 2011).
- Sarah Bendall, Dictionary of land surveyors and local map-makers of Great Britain and Ireland 1530-1850. (London: British Library, 1997).
- Rodney Shirley, Maps in the atlases of the British Library: a descriptive catalogue c. AD 850-1800 (London: British Library, 2004).
- Atlas of the British Isles. By Pieter Van den Keere c. 1605 / Introduction by Helen Wallis (Lympne Castle, Kent: Harry Margary, 1972).
- Frank Kitchen, ‘John Norden (c. 1547-1625)’ in Oxford dictionary of national biography [accessed 5 December 2022].
- R.A. Skelton, County atlases of the British Isles, 1579-1850: a bibliography (London: Carta Press, 1970).
- Peter Barber, ‘Mapmaking in England, ca. 1470-1650’ in David Woodward (ed.), The history of cartography volume 3: part 2, cartography in the European Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 1589-1669.