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Last updated: June 2, 2012 12:19 am
We’d be lost without maps. They tell us where we are and they bring order to a complicated planet. They’re used by planners and politicians, hikers and pilots. And some of us hang them on our walls. Ever since the first prints were pulled from an inked block of hardwood more than 500 years ago, maps have been a source of intrigue and delight. And in two weeks thousands of them will be on display at the London headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society.
The London Map Fair is the largest specialist fair of its kind in Europe. For two days, the public will be able to walk through the doors that welcomed the likes of Livingstone, Scott and Shackleton and scrutinise collectable maps that have been brought to the RGS by 40 of the world’s leading antiquarian map dealers. There will be maps from the age of exploration, celestial maps, maps of turnpikes and Victorian train lines, and maps from the days when London was the size of a country town. There will even be a gigantic enamel Tube map rescued from an Underground station. They’re all for sale. You can spend a tenner or £10,000. Or just come along for a look around; entrance is free.
It’s a big year for antique maps. This is the 500th anniversary of the birth of the world’s most celebrated mapmaker, Gerard Mercator, who created the world’s first atlas. I have to reveal an interest here. In the 1990s I spent thousands of hours writing a biography of the great man. There were moments, hunched over one of his original prints in the Map Room of the British Library, when I could feel his breath on the back of my neck. Visiting the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, I almost burst into tears when the archivist brought me his extraordinary globe of 1541. I’d read every paper published about the globe but I was so unprepared for its craftsmanship that I found myself immobilised by bewilderment. It was Mercator who devised the unique “projection” that allows the spherical globe to be flattened into a map in such a way that compass bearings remain constant. Today, Mercator’s Projection is used by the Ordnance Survey to map Britain, by Nasa to map the solar system, and for numerous other applications besides.
In Mercator’s day, the largest map fairs in Europe were held in Frankfurt. Each spring and autumn, cartographers, dealers, printers and publishers poured into the city. It was an exciting time. The survivors of the world’s first circumnavigation had returned to Seville in 1522, adding the Straits of Magellan to an evolving world map. The shores of South America were being explored by the Spanish. An Elizabethan privateer, Martin Frobisher, was trying to find the Northwest Passage. A shipowner from Dieppe appears to have been collecting maps that showed an “unknown land” (now known as Australia) beyond New Guinea. European cartographers updated their maps as each geographical titbit was brought back by seafarers. Engravers cut new shorelines and place-names on to copper plates and printers peeled away the inked paper sheets and rushed them to Frankfurt, which functioned as a gigantic data server for mapmakers.
From the earliest days of printing, maps were collectable. One of England’s leading map addicts was John Dee, the man Elizabeth I referred to as “my philosopher”. Dee owned a valuable collection of maps and geographical instruments that included at least one of Mercator’s globes. To Dee and his courtier friends, maps made it possible to weigh the global balance of power; to “vewe the large dominion of the Turke: the wide Empire of the Moschovite: the litle morsell of ground, where Christendome is certainly knowen”. Dee took particular interest in voyages of exploration to “farre landes” and his map collection made it possible for him to “understand of other mens travailes”. Maps were also symbols of prestige and humanist learning. Collectors such as Dee used them to “beautifie their Halls, Parlers, Chambers, Galeries, Studies, or Libraries”. In Elizabethan London, it was cool to “liketh, loveth, getteth, and useth, Mappes, Chartes, & Geographicall Globes”.
In Britain, each century saw cartographic step-changes. The first atlas of English and Welsh county maps was published in 1579 and the first systematic survey of British coasts appeared in 1693. One of the organisers of the London Map Fair has a fascinating map that illustrates the importance of a well-charted coast. Tim Bryars, who has his own shop in a Dickensian alley off Charing Cross Road, will be bringing to the Map Fair a sea-chart showing all the lighthouses and light-vessels on station around the coast of Britain and the adjacent continent. It was engraved in 1863 and is, according to Bryars, “bel et utile: precise, subtle engraving and delicate hand-shading”. The shading takes the form of arcs radiating from each light around the coast and it’s interesting to see that on clear nights a late 17th-century seafarer navigating the tricky periphery of Britain would seldom have lost sight of a beacon. Bryars is selling the map for £750. The same coast was also vulnerable to neighbouring countries. Another dealer is bringing a set of invasion charts once owned by one of Napoleon’s generals. Seventeen linen-backed sheets show the British coast in astonishing detail. They’re folded and packed into two original red morocco gilt boxes, on sale for £6,000.
Among the road maps likely to be at the Map Fair are those by the 17th-century British cartographer John Ogilby, who pioneered the use of strip maps for depicting the most direct routes between major cities and towns. These days you can expect to pay upwards of £300 for a good Ogilby. His strip maps were the direct ancestors of modern sat nav devices; they were aimed specifically at road users, and instantly popular, but they didn’t kill the market for large conventional maps. Ogilby’s strip map, like a modern sat nav, gets you from A to B but tells you nothing of the landscape you’re passing through, or of detours you might like to make.
The current revolution in digital mapping has led to rapid innovation, which to some might suggest the beginning of the end for paper maps. But there’s little sign yet that large sheets of paper printed with a grid of geographical detail are to be made obsolete. Sales of Ordnance Survey paper maps are declining but at a far slower rate than those of the travel books and guides sector in general (21 per cent over the past five years, compared to 31 per cent).
Demand for the bestsellers – Snowdon, the English lakes, the Peak District and New Forest – hasn’t dropped. Outdoorists who might find themselves navigating through white-outs on narrow ridges are reluctant to swap the all-weather reliability of a paper map for an electric box reliant on batteries. While the kinds of map Dr Dee would appreciate are not about to disappear, the Ordnance Survey – as the UK’s national mapping agency – is also the core supplier of digital mapping data for a rapidly expanding market. Ordnance Survey data are used in GPS devices, sat navs and for geographical information systems vital to utility companies and local authorities.
For the time being paper maps and digital mapping are complementary. Not long ago I watched the navigator of a Tornado aircraft plan his bombing mission on a flat paper Ordnance Survey map, then load the data into a digital “brick” that he carried to the aircraft. A modern OS Landranger map measures a metre across and allows the user to assimilate a vast amount of geographical information at a glance. Small screens just can’t do the same job.
The digital revolution is, however, turning the map into an everyday object. They’re in our cars, on our phones and iPads. Folk who were once cartographically-averse now scroll with alacrity through digital maps. Far from driving paper maps from the marketplace, Dr Rita Gardner, director of the RGS, suggests that digital devices are bringing maps to a wider audience: “The digital age has demystified maps for many people,” she says, “and simultaneously shown just how central geography is to our lives.”
Mercator was described by one of his peers as “the prince of modern geographers”. Having dedicated his entire working life to bringing geographical truths to the western world, he’d be amazed and gratified by the role maps continue to play. I’m told that there will be some of his work at the Map Fair. Prices for Mercator maps start at £90, which isn’t bad for an engraving made more than 400 years ago.
The London Map Fair takes place on June 16 and 17 at the Royal Geographical Society, London; admission free, www.londonmapfairs.com
Nicholas Crane is the author of ‘Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet’ (Phoenix, £10.99), which has been updated for the 500th anniversary of Mercator’s birth
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