The art of hand drawn map-making

Maps commissioned by country estates are valuable historical records as well as being aesthetic objects
Simon Vernon’s watercolour plan for Ashford Hall, Derbyshire © Alex Ramsey

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It is a chilly day in March with a keen east wind. I am standing on a rise, in a fold of hill, in medieval parkland, in the depths of Herefordshire, overlooking the flood plain of the river Teme. Just over the hill to the west lies Wales, to the north roll the Shropshire hills. In this ancient corner of England you can hear nothing but the birds and the wind. My companion, mapmaker Simon Vernon, in his woolly jumper and buttoned jacket, sweeps his arm across to the western line of hills and says: “One of the most magnificent moments in the Welsh border, I think.” He should know.

Some years ago he was commissioned to draw a map of this park and the estate, Brampton Bryan, of which it forms part, by Edward Harley, whose family have held it since 1309. The most dramatic moment of their stewardship was during the English civil war, when the chatelaine of the time, a fierce and principled parliamentarian, held their castle for three months against a Royalist siege. After her death, the castle was ransacked and burnt as punishment.

Simon Vernon’s pencil and watercolour plan of the park at Brampton Bryan © Simon Vernon

Today, as we walk over springy grass past twisted thousand-year-old chestnut trees, everything looks most orderly, with neatly painted estate houses, tidy ponds and eccentric topiary. The map was commissioned as a “millennium project”, Harley explains, “to record the park, the farmhouses on the estate and then the main house and castle”.

Vernon responded with a series of three large drawn maps, each the laborious product of many days walking and drawing. “I like to absorb the atmosphere of the place,” he says. These maps are more accurately a combination of aerial maps of landscape, which include the shadows of individual trees, with topographical drawings of particular landscape features and architectural drawings, created as if from an infinite number of viewpoints, of significant buildings. The whole composition of elements is brought together intuitively, united by the exquisite old-fashioned calligraphy Vernon employs for titles, place names and that vital component, the key to symbols. As he tells me: “I want an emotional reaction from the observer. The goal is to create an image with the right rhythm and space between the elements, so that the eye gently roves around the composition until it comes to rest.”

James Byatt’s map of the Burghley House estate © James Byatt

What is remarkable about Vernon’s maps, besides their meticulous detail and playful composition, is the romantic beauty of their realisation, whether they are photographed, etched, printed and hand coloured or created entirely with graphite and subtle watercolour wash on paper. As Harley puts it: “You know you have the record, but it is also idiosyncratic.” They look as if they will last a thousand years.

Vernon never set out to be a mapmaker. Brought up on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, he trained as a rural surveyor. He had always loved to draw, however, and on an expedition to Arctic Sweden and Norway as a schoolboy he had helped survey a glacier. A travel scholarship on qualifying as a land agent took him to Cape Town to study Cape Dutch architecture, where he developed his topographical and architectural drawing skills. But it was a period working for an antiquarian print and map dealer in London’s Covent Garden that sealed his fate. After experimenting with a map of the south Cambridgeshire hills and one of Clapham Common, Vernon has built a business making maps to private commission of estates from South Africa to the Scottish Highlands.

Simon Vernon working on a project in South Africa © Simon Vernon

One happy client is Edward Benthall, who lives in Benthall Hall, the beautiful National Trust property on Shropshire land owned by his family on and off since Anglo-Saxon times. When he turned 40, his wife commissioned a map of the house and estate as a historical record. “It is completely different from all the other photographic and watercolour records we have of the house,” Benthall tells me. “These all focus on the picturesque south side, but Simon’s map is deeply informative of the place where the house is situated. It has historical detail, but also his own mood. It encompasses the grand, the vernacular and the intimate spaces around the house.” Indeed, Benthall suggests that the word “map” does not do Vernon’s work justice: “We need a whole new noun, a Vernon, to describe what he does.”

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, 1716 © Burghley House/National Portrait Gallery

In addition, in a reversal of the habit of his predecessor, the 18th-century landscape designer Humphry Repton, who presented prospective clients with a “Red Book” of his watercolour sketches and designs, Vernon creates a specially bound book of all his preparatory drawings for the client, as a memorial of the project. Prices vary depending on the complexity of the project, from £20,000 to £80,000.

Next month, there is an exhibition of Vernon’s work at Weston Park on the border of Shropshire and Staffordshire as part of the tercentenary celebrations of the birth of landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Weston House is a landscape created by Brown, who relied heavily on draughtsmen and mapmakers, such as John Spyers, to translate his ideas on to paper before any earth moving began.

Burghley House in Lincolnshire, home to another of Brown’s landscape designs, has commissioned another contemporary mapmaker, James Byatt, to celebrate Brown’s birthday and mark this moment in the estate’s history. Byatt, who trained as a landscape gardener and is based in Morayshire, Scotland, also works in ink and pencil on paper on the basis of Ordnance Survey maps, using Tria rendering pens to colour details such as vegetation or terrain. He too works with his client to create vignettes and line drawings to give each map a distinct, poetic individuality (prices range from £2,000 to £8,000).

A ranch map by Anthony Pelly © Anthony Pelly

“The illustrations, maps and plans that we have in our archive are a very valuable resource for understanding the changes that have taken place here over more than 500 years,” says Miranda Rock, house director at Burghley. “It seemed appropriate to mark the tercentenary of the birth of Brown with a contemporary record.”

Anthony Pelly grew up on a family estate in southern England. On the walls of the family home hangs a map on vellum dated 1684. “It is pretty much the same block of land, with many of the same field names and woodland areas,” says his father, Richard Pelly.

A US hunting map by Anthony Pelly © Anthony Pelly

Anthony Pelly, who had been working in estate management all over England, was acutely conscious that maps, while they can be beautiful aesthetic objects, are also indispensable working tools. Today, computer programs such as geographic information software will generate a basic working map of your land. But it may not include details such as hidden drains or cables, customary bridleways, ancient field names, contemporary field sizes, soil types or crop information — vital knowledge for farm workers and contractors. When his family applied to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for higher level stewardship funding, to enhance the environment on their family farm, Pelly developed a digital system for generating PDF maps of the estate that could provide many layers of information at the click of a mouse. So impressive was the tool, it won the family their grant.

As a side project, Pelly created a one-off artistic version that marries detailed information about the estate with beautiful graphics. Spurred on, in 2008 he founded Rural Design Studio, a company that trades under the name Cartography.co.uk and creates maps for British farms and estates, among other markets, as Pelly explains: “I am currently working with vineyards in Champagne, rugged wild partridge shoots in Portugal, big game ranches in Texas and Wyoming cowboys grappling with thousands of cattle in search for water.”

A hunting map created by Anthony Pelly © Christopher Jeney

Clients are provided with a personalised package that can include tough, plastic-coated working maps for practical use alongside beautiful one-off renditions of a whole estate, designed to be framed and hung with pride (costs vary depending on the details included but, as a guide, an unframed, picturesque map of a 1,000-acre estate might cost £2,500, while a large 30,000-acre grouse moor would come in at £9,000).

Sir Kenneth Carlisle, who owns the small Wyken Hall estate in Suffolk, hangs a Pelly map alongside a map created by Thomas Warren in 1780. “The estate was mentioned in the Domesday Book,” he says. “These maps are important historical records. We wanted Anthony to take a lot of trouble to get the garden right — and he did.”

Burghley House © Burghley House
A waterproof Anthony Pelly map © Christopher Jeney
Anthony Pelly uses GPS to map a ranch in Colorado © Cartography.co.uk

Photographs: Simon Vernon; Alex Ramsey; Burghley House/National Portrait Gallery; Burghley House; James Byatt; Anthony Pelly; Christopher Jeney; Cartography.co.uk

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