Atlas: A World of Maps from the British Library

Every year, at about this time of year, gorgeous hardcover collections of maps start appearing in bookstores. The timing is not coincidental: map aficionados need gifts bought for them, after all. But there’s something about these books, usually assembled from a single library’s massive collection, that’s worth thinking about. The British Library, for example, has more than four million maps in its vaults—how does an author preparing a book based on that collection decide which of those maps to include? (Some maps will be no-brainers: they cannot not be included.) And less obviously, but more critically, how do you organize the book, if it has no specific theme or focus? If you’re going to put out a book that says, essentially, “look at all these maps we’ve got locked up here,” you have to decide on some kind of order.

There are several ways to do it: Treasures from the Map Room, Debbie Hall’s 2016 collection of maps from the Bodleian Library (reviewed here), organizes itself by subject, for example. Whereas the book under consideration here, Atlas: A World of Maps from the British Library (The British Library, 11 October), curated by the Library’s Tom Harper, organizes its many interesting and beautiful maps by continent. This is exactly the structure of a world atlas, and explains Harper’s choice of title. The chapters on each continent are bookended by chapters on the universe, world maps, seas and oceans, and fantasy worlds; and the continents are deliberately and pointedly arranged in alphabetical order, with Africa leading and Europe last.1

Not giving Europe primacy of place is a deliberate and laudatory gesture, but it’s ultimately futile. Europe may be the last of the continental chapters, but it’s still the largest, making up a third of the book’s pages. (Atlas unexpectedly opens with one of Benjamin Hennig’s cartograms, showing which areas of the world are covered most often in the book. Europe and, strangely, the Caribbean are larger than usual.) And European cartography suffuses the other chapters as well: many of the maps of the Americas, Africa and Asia, for example, were done in a colonial or imperial context. (Which explains all the Caribbean maps.) In other words, many of these maps are artifacts of the British Empire; the fact that these are maps from the British Library is inescapable. (England is, as you might expect, particularly well covered.)

While the early modern period is represented best, as you might expect, Atlas has a reasonably good diversity of maps from the medieval to the modern, from mappae mundi to fire insurance maps and escape maps. But its decision to group maps by location rather by time period is jarring: maps from the World Wars are interspersed with medieval treasures and renaissance classics like Blaeu, Ortelius and Pitt. We’re taken from Bellotto’s 1740s-era drawings of Lucca, Italy to a 1990s topo map of Zermatt, Switzerland, then to a 1500 map of Germany by Etzlaub, and then to a World War II USAAF map of Bremerhaven to be used by bombing crews. Reading Atlas from front to back can be an exercise in disorientation.

None of which should be taken to mean that there’s a map out of place in this book, or not of interest. As a collection of disparate cartographic gems from the British Library, Atlas delivers. For me, the highlights are those maps that did not come from formal European mapmaking enterprises: the 1682 Guatemalan pirate map, the Indian Office map of Delhi in the 1850s produced by a local draughtsman—the Asian chapter is easily the most interesting and diverse of the lot. But in the end, Atlas’s organizing conceit does more to hinder than help: the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

Atlas is out now in the U.K. and will be available in North America on 1 January 2019.

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  1. Most world atlases privilege the continent of publication: the Oxford starts with Europe and National Geographic with North America, at least in my editions; the latest Times Comprehensive starts with Australasia and Asia.