A Rare Outing for Pierre Desceliers’s 1546 World Map


This just in: another gem from the John Rylands library collection has been on display. We’ll have to make do with the digital version, but it looks pretty nice.

Originally posted on John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog:

One of the Library’s great treasures is a remarkable manuscript map of the world, or Mappe Monde, produced in 1546 by the distinguished French cartographer Pierre Desceliers  (French MS 1*).

Because of its size (260 x 130 cms), fragility, and the sheer logistical challenge of manoeuvring it around the building, the map is very rarely removed from it storage location, but last week it had a rare outing so that it could be examined by a researcher, Chet van Duzer, from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Chet is an expert on early world maps, and has been commissioned to write a book about a similar map by Desceliers now at the British Library (Add. MS 24065).

Chet van Duzer consults the Desceliers Mappe Monde (French MS 1*)

Chet van Duzer consults the Desceliers Mappe Monde (French MS 1*)

It took a team of five conservators to move the map in its 19th-century wooden case, and we had to limit access…

View original 318 more words

Geography is awesome

I love living in the Pennines, the landscape really is stunning. Here in Hebden Bridge, beautiful sandstone mills and houses cling to the steep valley sides, while narrow, twisty roads wind impossibly between them. The valley does present a slight obstacle if, like me, you’re into cycling or running though. Basically, you have a choice between going along the canal, which is a bit dull, taking your chances on the main road with all the lorries and buses, or a brutal ascent up the valley side. If you take the third option, however, you are rewarded with fresh air, amazing views, and an excellent reminder of how the forces of nature have carved out the landscape over thousands of years.

I went for a run to Stoodley Pike this afternoon and on the return leg, saw this beautiful view (the way out was much less pleasant, running uphill into a blinding sun, but maybe that makes it more worthwhile).

Kilnshaw Lane

I love how as you travel up the valley, you can see two kinds of erosion – here to the right, above the green barn, is the side of a classic U-shaped glacial valley. During the last ice age, millions of tons of ice flowed along here, slowly grinding away at the base rock. When the ice melted, a broad,  flat valley was left behind. A slightly better defined example is shown below.

Glacial valley

You want more detail? Of course, this page should tell you everything you need to know about glaciers.

Further over to the left, the valley is cut again by fluvial erosion, as the River Calder wears a V-shaped scar into the landscape. It’s not very clear in the image above, so here is a better view, taken from Hell Hole rocks, below Heptonstall.

Calder Valley

I’ll leave The British Geographer to explain the process in detail, but you can clearly see how the straight valley sides contrast with the curved side above.

I never tire of the views up here, and think that seeing the results of these two processes next to each other always reminds me how awesome Geography is.

The Apple Dog

Entering the US is never easy, especially with children in tow. I came through Dulles airport recently with my family and had the usual hour waiting in line to get through passport control. We picked up our bags, then just as we were heading through customs, with the exit in sight, I heard a voice behind me.

“Excuse me sir, do you have an apple in your bag?”

I turned round to see a uniformed woman with a very excited dog by her side. After a brief moment of panic, I remembered – there were two apples in there earlier in the day, but luckily the kids had eaten them during the flight. I explained and let her check my bag and we were free to go. Hopefully the dog wasn’t too disappointed, but I told him he’d done well anyway. The handler told me he could identify 60 types of fruit and vegetables, but didn’t elaborate on how he could tell her which one he’d found – one can only imagine. It all happened behind me, so I’m not sure what he did on this occasion.

I knew that detection dogs could be used for drugs, explosives, and people, but I didn’t know they could do fruit and veg too. It’s all very impressive, and I’m glad that man’s best friend can help us out in so many ways – for more examples, see here (can require login, cached version here) and here.

America’s Birth Certificate

Today I took a tour of the Library of Congress, in Washington DC. It is a huge institution, consisting of over 150 million items housed within three huge buildings. (Our guide told us it was the largest library in the world, but Wikipedia claims the British Library is bigger. The Library of Congress certainly covers a larger area anyway.)

The library contains nearly 400,000 maps, over 12,000 of which have been digitised and are available online. These high resolution images allow you to pick out the smallest details, but I think you can’t beat seeing the bigger picture and viewing the maps in person. Currently, there are two mapping exhibitions in the library, Exploring the Early Americas and Mapping a New Nation: Abel Buell’s Map of the United States, 1784.

Abel Buell’s map is the first map of America, published in America, by an American. It doesn’t contain any new cartography, but was the first time a map had been produced of this new nation. The other maps in the exhibition are thought to be used by Buell as source material.

Abel Buell USA 1784

What is interesting about this map is that, at the time, the western boundaries of the new states had not been legally defined. The Constitution was not ratified until 1787, so the federal government did not have the power to establish borders or force the sale of land. As a result, cartographers decided to end each state at the Mississippi River – leaving them much larger than their current extent. In particular, I like how Connecticut continues on the other side of Pennsylvania, making it many times the state it is today.

The Early Americas exhibition, meanwhile, features documents, artifacts, paintings, and prints, as well as maps. The highlight is undoubtedly Martin Waldseemüller‘s 1507 world map, widely regarded as the first usage of the word ‘America’ to describe the new land recently discovered in the west. Waldseemüller used a feminine, Latin version of Amerigo Vespucci‘s name on this map, but later distanced himself from this coinage, preferring instead Terra Incognita. He felt that perhaps Vespucci should not get all the credit for the discovery. The map had already been turned into a popular globe, however, and the name stuck. Our guide informed us that, as a result, this map is known as America’s birth certificate.

Universalis Cosmographia

What amazed me about this map was the level of detail, particularly in Africa. I always thought that very little was known about sub-Saharan Africa until Livingstone‘s explorations of the 19th century, but the Mountains of the Moon are shown here, along with many lakes and rivers.

Our guide also told us in great detail about the map’s discovery and purchase by the library, but I won’t go into it here. As usual, Wikipedia provides all the information you’ll ever need.

When is a map not a map?

I took a trip to Sheffield today, mostly to see an old friend, but also to visit Inside the Circle of Fire: A Sheffield Sound Map at the Millennium Gallery. This exhibition was put together by Chris Watson, a founder member of the legendary Cabaret Voltaire, but with a subsequent career as a sound recordist, specialising in natural history. I was intrigued by the idea of a sound map, and was interested to see how sounds could be placed in a geographical context. As the exhibition blurb says,

In this ambitious new exhibition, Chris will transform the Millennium Gallery into an immersive ‘sound map’ of Sheffield, charting its boundaries on the edge of the Peak and travelling its waterways to the bustling heart of the city.

Unfortunately, I must have misunderstood, as the exhibition is not a map in any sense that I’m aware of. It was interesting, and I would have stayed to listen to the whole work if I didn’t have a bored child with me who wasn’t having any of it (though he did raise a smile when the terraces of Bramall Lane started to reverberate to the sound of Seven Nation Army). The gallery was dimly lit, with projections showing black and white images of the city (though with no explanation or location). In the centre of the room were four couches set facing each other; other benches were placed along the walls, and cushions were on the floor, to give different perspectives of the work.

While we were there, we heard church bells, birdsong, a woodpecker tapping at a tree, various industrial sounds, football chants, etc., but they were just sounds, coming from nowhere (or from everywhere, depending on whereabouts in the gallery you sat). There was no sense of where these sounds were located, where they belonged. I know I’m probably being a square who’s trying to find meaning and force an explanation onto something, but that’s not the point. I’m quite happy to enjoy this piece as a sound installation, or a sound collage, or a soundscape (as the guy lying on the couch with his eyes closed clearly was. Unless he was asleep), but it’s not a map. To me a map shows the relationship between items, rather than randomly serving them up without explanation.

That said, I would love to see it again, or maybe get a podcast and while away those long train journeys listening to “an affectionate portrait of a city that the 19th century writer John Ruskin called ‘a dirty picture in a golden frame.’“.

Konichiwa Manchester!

I was passing through the Japanese department of Manchester University at the weekend (don’t ask why, it’s a long story), when I saw this entertaining poster on someone’s office door. It shows the city centre and selected landmarks, with a lot of cartographic licence in play – whole streets and junctions are missing and the trams have just been dumped randomly between buildings. I don’t think it is intended for navigation though…

Manchester Japanese

Now, I don’t speak any Japanese, but a few minutes on Google translate told me that the word in blue is ‘Manchester’. The second word is probably ‘music’, as it matches the first word below Music Box and Rockworld. Any suggestions as to the last word of the title, please feel free to comment below.

Even if I don’t know the full title of the map, there’s no mistaking the theme – the legend lists twenty music venues around the city and many Mancunian musicians can be seen wandering the streets. The monobrowed Gallagher brothers loom out of the lower left corner, a bequiffed Morrissey is to the right, and the sainted Anthony H. Wilson stands next to the old Granada Studios. Yes, I know that he and many of the people shown here are actually from Salford, but they’re on the other side of the river today.

Looking a bit closer, there are plenty more characters, though I don’t recognise them all. Perhaps some are just random bystanders – let me know if I’ve missed anyone.

Manchester Mondays

Doing some freaky dancing on the roof of GMEX is Bez from the Happy Mondays, while Shaun Ryder gets up to no good with some pigeons nearby. Ian Curtis stands on Deansgate, a very simian-looking Ian Brown is coming round the corner, and I think that’s John Robb outside the Hacienda.

Manchester BeeGees

Further south, the Bee Gees are dancing down Oxford Road, while the Cornerhouse is showing (what else?) 24 Hour Party People. I’m not sure about the guy on the corner – is he a lost raver? Answers on a postcard.

Manchester Smith Hucknall

Over near Canal Street (where Pride seems to be in full swing), Mark E. Smith is having a good shout at a taxi, and Mick Hucknall is standing in Piccadilly Gardens.

Manchester Small Evans

Waiting for a bus at the top of Deansgate is Heather Small, and that might be Chris Evans behind triangle, though it could be anyone to be honest.

Manchester Badly Drawn Hook

Lurking near Piccadilly Records is Badly Drawn Boy, and that must be Peter Hook outside the Dry Bar. It doesn’t look anything like him, but that’s his stance alright.

It’s hard to put a date on this map, but there a plenty of clues. The copyright notice on the right hand side names Creative Lynx, which ceased to exist in June 2012, GMEX was renamed in 2007, and the Hacienda was demolished in 2002. Granada Studios and the BBC only closed this year, as they moved to Media City, and lastly Tony Wilson became the late Tony Wilson in 2007.

I think the best guess is closer to 2002, when 24 Hour Party People was likely to be on in the cinema, though given how much popular culture Manchester has to celebrate, it’s probably on there all the time.

The (Offset) Streets of London

It’s time for another look through my old map collection, and this time I thought I’d finally get round to the map that actually inspired me to start this blog in the first place. On the front cover, it looks just like a normal petrol station road map, illustrated with generic tourist images (just so you know you’re in London, there’s Tower Bridge, a Beefeater, and a Routemaster bus).

Esso London front cover

Front Cover

The back cover shows the coverage of the series. London is the only city that has been mapped in detail – the other sheets seem to be smaller scale touring maps.

Back cover

Back cover

Looking inside is when it gets interesting, though. Street maps are generally produced in two styles – cased street symbols and centred labels, as seen on European-style street maps, or North American-style maps where labels are offset from thinner, single street features. The former style is prevalent among web maps from across the world, as I couldn’t find an online example of streets with offset labels. See below for a print map excerpt from 2000, with the same area on a web map.

Paris Michelin

European map

North American print map

North American print map

North American web map

North American web map

This London map is different though; it is a map of Europe, but done in the North American style. I’ve never seen a British street map that looks like this before. When you look closely at the labelling, there are a lot more interesting details. It has clearly been done by hand, as the spacing and font sizes are quite inconsistent. For example, Brushfield Street has been broken up so the letters don’t overlap the street underneath, but Artillery Lane is evenly spread along the street, with some letters clashing with the side streets below.  On Bishopsgate, however, the underlying features have been broken, so the label is surrounded by white space. The Houndsditch label has also been spaced out, with other labels placed in the spaces.

London detail 1

London detail 1

On example 2, more labels have been squeezed into the spaces between the characters of  Monument and King William Street. You can see text going right up into the Ls of William.

London detail 2

London detail 2

Example 3: again, Upper Thames Street has been stretched along the length of the feature, with other labels in the spaces. Note also, Bankside Power Station, or, as it is known today, Tate Modern.

London detail 3

London detail 3

Marshalsea Road, on example 4, has more feature masking.

London detail 4

London detail 4

Example 5 shows how the junction at Holborn Circus is masked, but Ludgate Circus is not. The gridlines are also broken for Farringdon Street Station, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and the GPO. Charterhouse Street shows a mixture of feature masking and character spacing to fit the label in.

London detail 5

London detail 5

In example 6, the street labels mostly have extra spacing between words so the two parts of the name line up across the terraces. Other streets have spacing between characters to fill the feature, as above. The U of Queensbridge Road seems to have fallen in the canal though, which is a bit unfortunate.

London detail 6

London detail 6

Lots of character spacing in example 7, especially Leonard Street and Epworth Street, and lots of labels in spaces, especially City Road.

London detail 7

London detail 7

And in the last example, we can see the date of the map, 1959. Also of interest in this corner is the Surrey Canal – I didn’t know there was a canal running through the middle of Camberwell. Unfortunately, it has now been filled in and forms part of Burgess Park. This blog offers more detail and laments what could have been had gentrification reached this part of town a bit sooner.

London detail 8

London detail 8

On the reverse of the map, the whole of Greater London is shown at a smaller scale. It’s not as interesting as the street-level map, so I’ve just included a view of how the docks and Greenwich looked in 1959.

London detail 9

London detail 9

The last item of interest here is a tube map by one H. C. Beck. It looks quite different to modern tube maps, with fewer diagonals and station names fully capitalised. A quick look on the London Tube Map Archive shows it to be a monochrome version of the 1958 edition.

London tube map

London tube map


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