The Curious Map Book

A tour de force is the description which comes to mind when reading about and looking at the exquisite ‘entertaining and imaginative maps in Ashley Baynton-Williams’ new book. Perhaps the title and some of the design could have been a little more polished (or ‘curiouser and curiouser’ in the words of Alice) but the selection of objects and the research are superb. In the author’s words this is ‘a book designed to show the playful side of map-making’; and it does this in spades.

Neither the concept nor the execution could have been easy to put together in view of the plethora of coffee-table books featuring maps which have appeared on the market over the last few years, but this one, is decidedly different. Many of the images are familiar and have appeared elsewhere as ‘cartographical curiosities’ but the author has gone one step further and found some other really unusual and rarely (if ever seen before) items. Apparently the majority of the ‘maps’ come from the collections in the British Library but the author must have spent many hours, days, and even months searching catalogues and viewing items for possible inclusion. He then had to conduct further research into their origins and antecedents, not to mention their authors and historical contexts. No mean task!

The selection of maps can be broken down into five broad categories: game maps, maps in animal form, maps in human form, maps on objects and allegorical maps. This demonstrates that maps can be used in other ways than just as geographical tools and illustrates the mapmaker at play. In The Map Collector we had a regular slot for cartographical curiosities which was very popular and there have been several books devoted to the subject but mainly with pictures in black and white and none were in any way as comprehensive as this work.

This is a book to dip into rather than to read from cover to cover and, as the author says, mapmaking has usually been a serious business where accuracy is generally prized over creativity, yet cartographers of all periods have had a sense of humour and often used their artistic talents to create maps not only for geographical purposes but for the pleasure and entertainment of others, or simply to explore the possibilities of the map as an art form. This work brings together 100 ‘entertaining and imaginative maps’ each with a creative curiosity. It is also divided into five chapters: ‘The Dawn of Mapmaking to 1594’;‘Early Published Maps 1598–1760’; ‘Commercial Cartography and Education 1760–1850’; ‘The Victorian Era and Growth of the Map Market 1850–’ and finally ‘Cartographical Details’.

I love jigsaws, so really enjoyed reading the chapter on commercial cartography and education between 1761 and 1848. It discusses the debate over the origins of British cartographic jigsaw puzzles. I always understood it was John Spilsbury (1739[?]–1769) who was credited with producing the first map jigsaw, but the author thinks otherwise. He proposes it may have been a man named Leprince who claimed to be the ‘Inventor of the dissection of maps on wood’, working from a Marylebone address in London. However, he concedes that Spilsbury was definitely the first commercial publisher in England
of the jigsaw and we are treated to several of his productions in this book. Compared to modern jigsaws it is notable how few wooden pieces there were in these early productions. For example ‘North and South America in its Principal Divisions’, a jigsaw produced by Spilsbury in 1767, has only seventeen pieces whereas jigsaws today can comprise several thousand pieces. This may have been because the process of cutting the wood was both an expensive and a difficult task. There are so many images to love in this work that it is difficult to choose favourites but I confess that one of mine is the symbolic ‘Rose Map of
Bohemia’ made by Christoph Vetter of Prague in the seventeenth century. We learn that it appeared in a history book published in 1677 and that it is an overt piece of propaganda for the benefits of Habsburg rulers. The roots of the rose are firmly planted in Vienna, the capital and seat of power of the Habsburg dynasty, which had held sway over Bohemia since 1526.

Ashley Baynton-Williams is to be congratulated on this impressive work. Disappointingly the design does not do justice to his expertise. The first example of this confronts the reader on pages 10 and 11 where two whole pages feature a garish orange colour containing nothing but the title of the first section ‘The Dawn of map-making to 1594’. The use of large expanses of other brash colours continues throughout. My other design gripe is that the images are all presented ‘upright’ so the ‘portrait-shaped’ ones work well on the page but the ‘landscape-shaped’ images are placed across the page and in many cases this means the image is relatively small with lots of blank space above and below. Had they been rotated for best fit then the images would have appeared larger and the reader would have been spared a lot of the unattractive block colouring. This sort of colouring somehow diminishes the work of the author rather than enhancing it.

But despite this (and after all, the colour issue may be a matter of taste), it is a wonderful book which has been impeccably researched and very well written. All I can say is ‘go out and buy a copy as soon as you can’. It is both fun, educative and worth every penny of £25.

Valerie G. Newby, North Marston, UK