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A splash of colour

A splash of colour

Few things in my corner of the rare booktrade seem to cause as much confusion and consternation as the colouring of maps: when, by whom and why? Commercially viable colour-printing didn’t really take off until the mid nineteenth-century, and there’s a transitional period of at least thirty years or so when hand-colouring of maps was still the norm rather than the exception. Even at the turn of the twentieth-century, it was sometimes more economical (especially for specialist publications) to use a stencil technique such as pochoir (see, for example, Booth’s famous poverty maps).

Detail of 1900 edition of Charles Booth’s Poverty Map of West Central London, centred on Cecil Court (coloured red for “well-to-do”; how times change!)

Prior to that, when a map was printed -whether from a woodblock or an engraved metal plate - it came off the press black and white. The question is then whether it was hand-coloured for the publisher at the time of printing, for which the purchaser generally paid a premium, or has been hand-coloured later, which usually means within the last 100 years (with very little in between: it would be unusual for someone with a black and white seventeenth-century Dutch atlas to reach for a paintbrush in, say, the 1820s). Maps described as having original/early/contemporary colour generally belong in the first category; maps with later/recent/modern handcolour (or ‘hand-coloured’ without qualification) in the second. It’s not the end of the world either way, as long as the map is accurately described and you know exactly what you are buying. You can then make an informed choice about what works for your collection. There are some maps (eg Coronelli’s) which were generally never intended to receive colour and others (such as maps by Seutter or Homann) which were almost always coloured. There are maps where provision was made for colouring (or at least for determining colour, eg the colour-code key on Speed’s county maps) which were hardly ever coloured at the time (and which therefore attract a significant premium when they are found with original hand-colour). And there are also maps, such as Blaeu’s, which are found with original hand-colour as often as not. It’s a complex issue. Recently, though, I’ve begun to hear people say that they want black and white maps because they want maps in ‘original’ condition, and it’s worth bearing in mind that many maps were coloured ‘originally’. There are very good reasons for colouring maps, as I’ll go on to show, and at various times in history skilled artists could earn a good living as colourists, for example colouring the great Dutch atlases of Golden Age Amsterdam. Original colour can be a curse as well as a blessing. I’ve just seen a Janssonius heptarchy (Anglo-Saxon England) which ordinarily is a highly decorative and desirable map, but in this instance it was folded too soon after it was coloured (in the seventeenth-century) resulting in adhesion damage (the surface of the paper has adhered to the facing page and torn away in strips. Ouch.) One can also have problems with offsetting and oxidisation (worst case scenario: the parts painted with copper-based green pigments turn brown and the weakened paper cracks or falls out of the map altogther). On the other hand, modern colour by a skilled colourist can enhance a map. In general terms, though, one pays a premium for fine original colour. As for how to tell original colour from modern colour, the best advice I can give is to buy from people who know what they are talking about - that is, until you have handled enough pieces to be sure yourself. There are no absolutely hard and fast rules: it’s a case of staring at too many old bits of paper for too long, until it becomes obvious. There are things to look for, eg show-through, particularly from the green pigments, onto the verso, but that doesn’t take into account paper-quality, storage or the composition of the pigment itself. The absence of ‘show through’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the colour is modern (and it’s presence doesn’t always make it old …) This isn’t an attempt to create an air of mystery where there shouldn’t be one, it’s just that experience is the best guide and I have no wish to steer anyone in the wrong direction. Time to look at some maps with original hand-colour. Firstly, here’s a map of Cumbria by Blaeu, printed in Amsterdam in 1646 and hand-coloured at the time. It hasn’t been messed about with or augmented in any way since (original colour is rarely muted):

The simple outline colour heightens the county boundaries, making the map easier to read at a glance. The colouring of the elaborate cartouche is more indulgent - making the map a luxury item. Don’t get me wrong, the decorative elements are not superfluous: they there to be read, as much as any aspect of the cartography. The royal and English coats of arms had been a feature of county cartography (perhaps a symbol of royal authority and control) ever since Elizabeth I sponsored the engraving of Christopher Saxton’s county maps (the first national atlas) in the 1570s. The armorial bearings of notable local figures could be considered a legacy of John Speed’s antiquarianism (his county maps were engraved to accompany his history of Britain, with historical notes of all kinds, and the coats of arms used by Blaeu and Janssonius were copied directly) but they also represent the established order of things. Colour certainly makes them more impressive, more instantly recognisable (and it had to be accurate, so it couldn’t be done on the cheap), but it’s altogether less functional. The cartouche is a distillation of Cumbria, as seen from Amsterdam:

Rugged fells, with hardy fell sheep and a somewhat less hardy looking shepherd in the foreground, and general plowing and sowing going on in the middle distance. It’s a delightful pastoral scene, brought vividly to life through the skilful use of colour. But contrast this with a map of the Tirol by Homann, printed in Nuremberg c. 1730:

The use of full-body colour is simple but effective. It does the job, but without any of the subtlety of its predecessor (and probably for a fraction of the cost!) The cartouche is equally elaborate (equally mountainous, even …) but the impact is down to the strength of the engraving rather than deployment of colour. It’s absolutely typical of its time and place. Here’s a second map by Homann, a map of Europe, but here the colour has been applied to show religious rather than political boundaries:

A printed key has been pasted into the lower margin to explain the use of colour (from ‘reformed Catholics’ in Britain, to Muslims within the Ottoman Empire) and where distinctions are far from clear, for example in Hungary and Transilvania, bright dabs of colour (independent of any engraving) indicate the mix of religions:

Here’s a final, effective, use of colour; it’s an early example of physical geography (and an unusual projection) by Dezauche, showing the watersheds of the world, printed in Paris c. 1780:

Dezauche purchased plates by Guillaume de l’Isle and his brother-in-law Philippe Buache in 1780, adding his own imprint (this plate was first issued in 1756) but what is important in this context is how elegantly and simply the colour emphasises how mountain ranges act as continental divides, with the waters on either side flowing into different oceans. Not impossible by any means, but so much harder to achieve in black and white …

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