Anonymous: Bird’s-eye View of Canton, c1760 • 100 x 180cm • Manuscript on paper • © British Library

Mapping the Past

14th May 2010

A new exhibition at the British Library – Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art – brings together some of the most impressive wall maps ever created. As Jack Watkins discovers, it shows that mapping has rarely been just about geography…

Taller than the average man, it takes six people to lift it. Bound in leather and fastened by giant metal clasps, it contains 37 maps, each one 2m wide, intended to give an encyclopedic summary of the world. The Klencke Atlas was presented to King Charles II upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, as a gift from a group of Dutch merchants. As a piece of extravagance, it certainly was fit for a king but, you have to ask, given its cumbersome dimensions, what possible use could it have been?

The British Library’s big summer show, at which Johann Klencke’s atlas is but one of many strikingly oversize maps, is perhaps the first of its kind, pitching us into a historical past where maps were created not for the purely utilitarian usage we demand of modern ones, but to serve as impressive pieces of art, expressions of power and works of soft propaganda.

Key to an appreciation of the ‘great’ age of early map making – understood to have been from between 1450 and 1800 – is the realisation that they were usually made for prominent wall display. Even when lowered for closer study, their immensity generally rendered them of limited practical purpose. The principal aim was to impress, and there was an overlap between map drawing and artistry which seems alien to us. In the 18th century, for instance, Paul Sandby – the so-called ‘father of English watercolour’, who is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Royal Academy – was employed as a drawing master advising on military map making.

Inevitably, as the mathematical precision and geographical accuracy of cartography improved in the 19th century, it became the natural reaction to dismiss the decorative wall maps of previous eras. Only in recent times have academics returned to old maps to examine them for their cultural and historical significance, and it has proved a rich field of study.

Old maps, the famous Mappa Mundi of Hereford Cathedral but one of many examples, ventured beyond the merely topographical and were often loaded with classical and mythological references and pictorial adornments. Politically, too, they had potential value, something the ruling families of the Italian city republics of the late Renaissance were not slow to spot.

Such families used maps to emphasise their power and cultural sophistication, and their commissions were not always completely fanciful in their execution. One of the most aesthetically pleasing city maps was commissioned by the Florentine Medici. Dating from 1584, it was a genuine piece of cartography. As well as celebrating the family’s ‘scientific and cultural achievements’, it was the first mathematically surveyed map of Florence. Its creator, the Benedictine monk Stefano Bonsignori, even depicted himself in the corner of the map, perched on an eminence in his robes, along with his survey instruments, as if to emphasise the professional nature of his undertaking. Remarkably, the map even manages to show the façades of individual buildings, including the famous Duomo, so that the user is taken down to street level, foreshadowing, in a primitive way, the Google Maps of the 21st century.

Similarly eyecatching – and straddling the boundary between map-making and illustration – is a panoramic view of Seville, the main port of the Spanish fleet in the 17th century, from which the ships sailing to and from the Americas docked. Along with the magnificent array of fortifications, palaces and basilicas – symbolising the Christian nature of the Spanish Empire – in the foreground is the harbour with its lines of galleons, flags fluttering and cannons awaiting loading, a statement of power and organisation.

In England, maps and map paintings were displayed in the Whitehall Palace of Henry VIII, so that visitors would be impressed – it was hoped – with images of the past triumphs of the king, his piety, his learning and his up-to-the-minute grasp of affairs on the world stage.

But sometimes commissioned maps, for all their self-trumpeting power and glory, can offer humanising insights into distant historical figures. George I, the first Hanoverian English king, had none of the intellectual pretensions of Henry Tudor and has seldom been viewed with any great warmth by posterity.

In fact, he was a rather shy, reserved man who liked nothing better than to escape court life and retreat to the huge Goehrde forest in his German dominions for a spot of hunting, as often as he could. The map he commissioned of the forest, its date unknown, included all the information necessary to stage a good hunt, including routes, rides, ditches, fences and even places to store the carcasses. With corner illustrations of the palatial complex that George had built in the forest, and pictures of the hounds, and of the king himself setting out on a hunt, the whole map becomes a celebration of his status as a hunter and builder.

Large maps have little part to play in the modern world, though. Or do they? In 1990, in the great hall of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, once the throne room of the Russian tsars, a monumental map of the USSR was hung, in such a fashion that it seemed like a defiant statement of the wealth and power of the now declining Soviet Union. On the fall of the Soviet states it was replaced, and the throne of the tsars has taken its place once more. On a less grandiose level, the ownership of a globe – the world in your hands – continues to have massive personal appeal, a harmless sense of the omniscience owners of early versions must have felt four hundred years ago.

And if modern maps are relatively prosaic things to look at, some artists have rediscovered the potential of display maps. Grayson Perry’s Map of Nowhere, created in 2008, takes the essential structure of a 13th century mappa mundi to chart a meandering journey through not only his own psyche, but the confusion of contemporary life. No-one is ever likely to be able to draw an infallibly accurate map for that.

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art
continues at the British Library until 19 September.
Open seven days a week; admission free.

See for more information.

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