Time Travel Explorer Blog

Maps: they are what you make them

by Peter Watts 15. September 2010 10:47

One of the first things you learn when you start to take a more than passing interest in cartography is that maps are about much more than mere geography. Every mapmaker has to make a decision about what to include and what to leave out, making each map a subjective view of what the cartographer considers important.


For an idea of how this works, think about drawing a map of your home area (and see Londonist's gallery for examples). Do you show pubs? Cinemas? Museums? Churches? Schools? Do private roads get included? What about those go-nowhere roads that are in housing estates? Where do you choose to place your boundary? Do you show bus stops? Shops? Restaurants and takeaways? Alleyways? Public toilets? Every decision you make reflects your own interests, what you consider to be important and the information you feel needs to be passed on. It isn’t any different for the pros (or the people who financially backed them).


Take John Rocque, for instance. His elegant map of 1746 (available on the TTX app) was made to reflect ‘the view of his middle and upper class contemporaries – that their London was the new Rome... In such maps, there was no room for the poor, the danger, sickness and grime that is the focus of much contemporary writing about London.’ (‘Mapping London’ by Simon Foxall.)


Even Edward Stanford’s map of 1862 (also available on the TTX app), which is considered to be one of the more politically neutral maps available as it does not exaggerate particular features or types of information, makes a pretty bold statement by ignoring the entire Isle of Dogs, deeming it not central enough for his tastes despite the importance of the docks at the time to the London economy. Even today, generations of South Londoners are treated the same way by cartographers who insist that London stops at the Thames.

Magnificent Maps at the British Library

by Peter Watts 20. August 2010 10:45

Londoners who love maps – and if you’re reading this there is a fair chance you are both or either – are in luck at the moment, because the British Library is hosting one of its regular in-depth exhibitions about maps. This one is called Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art and is drawn from the Library’s unmatchable – well, almost, the US Library of Congress has more – collection of 4.25 million atlases, maps, globes and books about cartography, dating from the fifteenth century to the present day. Peter Barber, the lucky man who guards this magnificent archive, can be heard in discussion with David Starkey here.


It was another recent British Library maps exhibition, London: A Life In Maps, that first introduced many Londoners to the world of Greenwood, Stanford, Horwood and Rocque, those pioneering London cartographers whose work you can explore in the Time Travel Explorer application.


The current exhibition looks at how maps are used to demonstrate political power and wealth and asks for them to be viewed as art alongside paintings and sculptures. The highlight for most people is The Island, the extraordinary recent work of Stephen Walters. This is a very personal view of London, in which Walters begins with a standard map of London and then draws his own landmarks over it, whether it is parks that are good for ‘al fresco bonking’ or cheekily reimagined versions of familiar place names. Its idiosyncratic nature means it isn’t any good for actual navigation, but you could do a lot worse than give it a thorough browse here.