Until the nineteenth century, virtually all printed maps were produced by engraving the map on a sheet of copper—or later on, steel—as a mirror image of how the finished map would look. The plate was then inked and the image printed onto a sheet of paper in a printing press. This was incredibly skilled work, but often only very discreetly acknowledged, the engraver’s name appearing in tiny, modest letters in the bottom margin.
Identifying the engravers for cataloguing purposes—something a library like the Bodleian tries to do—can be a challenge.
In case the Talking Maps exhibition (previously) was insufficient cause for you to visit the Bodleian Library in Oxford this year, here’s another. The Sheldon Tapestry Map of Oxfordshire, one of four tapestry maps of English counties commissioned in the late 16th century by Ralph Sheldon, is on display at the Bodleian’s Weston Library. The tapestry is partially complete—intact it would have measured 3.5 × 5.5 metres—and on display for the first time in a century, having gone through a “painstaking” restoration. BBC News, Londonist.
The Oxfordshire tapestry map replaces a display of the Worcestershire tapestry map that had been running for the past four years: both were donated to the Bodleian by Richard Gough in 1809. The Bodleian acquired a sizeable section of the Gloucestershire map in 2007 (it went on display the following year); other parts are in private hands. The fourth tapestry map, of Worcestershire, is the only one that is completely intact and not missing any pieces: it’s owned by the Warwickshire Museum, where it’s on display at the Market Hall Museum.
Talking Maps, opening today at the Bodleian Libraries, is a major new map exhibition featuring maps from the Bodleian’s collections.
Highlights on show include the Gough Map, the earliest surviving map showing Great Britain in a recognizable form, the Selden Map, a late Ming map of the South China Sea, and fictional maps by C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Map treasures from the Libraries’ collection will be shown alongside specially commissioned 3D installations and artworks, and exciting works on loan from artists and other institutions.
Maps are artifacts of the era in which they were created: they reflect not only what people knew about the world, but how they saw it. That’s the thrust of Amelia Soth’s article for JSTOR Daily about The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences, and Marvels for the Eyes, a Fatimid-era cosmography compiled in Egypt in the 11th century; the Bodleian Library’s example is a late 12th/early 13th-century copy.
There is a philosophy underlying the geography. It pins abstract concepts to points in space, placing civilization and order at the center and wilderness and chaos at the edges. The medieval Arab world inherited the Greek conception of geography—in particular, that of Ptolemy, who separated the world into seven climates. The concentric arcs marked on the map represent these climates. The world is mapped as a circle with a center and a periphery; the regions grow hotter to the south and colder to the north, buffeted by different kinds of winds on the eastern and western sides, while the land at the heart of the map enjoys a harmonious balance of elemental forces. The people living at the center benefit from the temperate weather and grow up beautiful and healthy.
If all maps must necessarily be selective, choosing what to show and what to leave out, surely map books must do the same. That thought came to mind as I perused Treasures from the Map Room—no relation—a book that presents maps from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, collected and curated by the Bodleian Map Room’s senior library assistant, Debbie Hall.
“Although maps have formed part of the Bodleian’s collections from early on, they have been collected actively only since around 1800,” Hall writes in the introduction. Broadly speaking, the Bodleian’s map holdings come from a combination of bequests and legal deposit requirements. The latter in particular means that the Bodleian’s holdings of British maps—including virtually every Ordnance Survey map and a large number of commercially published maps—are very extensive. The bequests are sometimes much better known: maps named for their owners and donors rather than their creators—the Gough Map, the Selden Map—falling into the Bodleian’s hands.
Hall organizes her selection—some 75 maps—into seven chapters organized by theme: Travel and Exploration, Knowledge and Science, Pride and Ownership, Maps of War, The City in Maps, Maps for Fun, and Imaginary Lands. Sometimes those themes make for unlikely juxtapositions: Hall mentions the Tabula Peutingeriana and American highway maps in very nearly the same breath; and Maps for Fun, a chapter dealing with tourism, recreation and travel, includes a 15th-century Holy Land pilgrimage map—Reuwich’s Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam—alongside the MountMaps 3D Navigator Map. But apart from that the chapters present us with some very interesting maps indeed: Travel and Exploration gives us the Gough and Selden maps; Knowledge and Science discusses Mercator, Ortelius and early astronomical maps, John Speed, Christopher Saxton and the Ordnance Survey; Maps of War gives us fortifications and plans, siege and trench maps, but also silk escape maps of World War II; Imaginary Lands ranges from Hole’s Poly-Olbion maps to Leo Belgicus, Tolkien and Lewis, and the art of Layla Curtis.
We get, in other words, a taste of just about everything—but only a taste. The breadth of Treasures of the Map Room is both a blessing and a curse. We’re made aware of the volume and diversity of the Bodleian’s map holdings, but we never get a chance to drill down beyond the most cursory of examinations, never more than one example of something. On the other hand, Hall’s approach brings to the fore maps that might not otherwise be included in books like this—books that can privilege the rare and the ancient over the more mundane but more significant. For example, the map I found myself staring at the most was the 1864 Ordnance Plan of the Crystal Palace and its Environs, a 1:2,500 map of incredible detail and delicacy. You might find yourself lingering over some other map. Discoveries like this are, I suspect, the whole point of book that is, after all, about a library’s hidden treasures.
I received a review copy from the North American distributor for this book, the University of Chicago Press.