Who’s mapping who? Magnificent Maps at the British Library

Diogo Homem, A Chart of the Mediterranean Sea, 1570 (British Library)

Maps stir up surprisingly strong emotions. That was my first thought, observing the suppressed, slightly obsessive air of excitement among the visitors to the British Library’s sumptous Magnificent Maps exhibition.

There’s the thrill of excitement when you grasp a familiar shape or recognise a place name that means something to you.

I found myself glued to a 17th century map of London, tracing familiar streets (Great Russell Street at the top, Tooley Street at the bottom, Fetter Lane in the centre) and marvelling at the changes (everything outside my Bloomsbury office window was once fields). This particular map was made in 1682, just 16 years after the Great Fire of London, while the city was in the process of being remade. Fascinatingly, it includes a representation of St Paul’s Cathedral quite unlike the version finally built. Clearly, they were expecting a dome, but beyond that the plans changed substantially between this representation and the finished product.

Then there’s the frustration when you simply can’t orientate yourself on a map – for example, the baffling medieval Mappa Mundi, with their monsters, devils, creative geography and mysterious Christian iconography. It didn’t help that the interactive ‘explainer’ was out of order. But I felt overwhelmed by the realisation that this map, once as familiar and relevant as the A-Z is to me, contained concepts and perspectives I could barely begin to understand.

Maps also provoke outrage when you see, for example, how the old countries of Europe carved up the ‘new world’ with pious religious symbols and an astonishing sense of entitlement. Even on a minor scale, I found myself miffed when I looked on the big community map of Bloomsbury in the foyer, to see that my own street had been painted over by local primary school children!

Unlike most art exhibitions, people were actually talking to one another in this exhibition. One chap had stationed himself by an early map of Italy, explaining to all and sundry that it was ‘upside-down’ (the convention that north is at the top of a map arrived late). Another kindly helped me get some kind of fix on the reproduction Hereford Mappa Mundi, pointing out Britain at bottom left and Europe above it. I found myself exclaiming to a stranger that the gold-leaf fringed Venetian map pictured above was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.

One of my favourites was a slightly wonky chart of the Magellan Straits, drawn in 1670 by John Narborough, the captain of the first European ship to make the journey. It was lively and energetic, with little drawings of the animals and people (and more practiced ones of ships), and annotated with all the information that the captain thought people might find useful. So we have a little treatise on the habits and customs of the ‘natives’, notes on where to anchor up, and about the tides and coastline. You can imagine him working on it in his cabin, day by day, as the ship made its way up the channel.

Only later, talking to my father (a former geographer) after he’d visited the exhibition, did I realise that the maps had been presented almost entirely from a historical/artistic perspective. Dad wanted to know about how the maps had been made, advances in surveying and map-making techniques, later maps such as the unique ordinance survey of the UK. And my husband, a keen sailor, pointed out that with the exception of the sea chart mentioned above, these were mere display maps, designed to impress, rather than to use. He finds Admiralty charts far more interesting.

I’d been happy to immerse myself in the extraordinary artistry of the maps, enjoying the splendid panoramic maps of Venice and Seville, with their tiny, detailed drawings of people, buildings, boats and horses. The politics of maps was addressed, too. How else do you claim a place as yours, but by drawing a line around it and giving it your name?

It’s an exhibition I’ll go back to again and again, no doubt finding something new on each visit. While I’m still amazed by what I can do playing with Googlemaps on my iPhone (latest toy, the City Poems app, gives you a London poem matched to your location), its good to be reminded of a time when maps were the toys of the rich, not there for anyone to play with on the net.

Image: with permission from the British Library Board.

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