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British lighthouses charted, and a rare peek inside Wylde's monster globe: Chelsea 2011

British lighthouses charted, and a rare peek inside Wylde's monster globe: Chelsea 2011

I’ve just spent an agreeable couple of days at the annual ABA bookfair in Chelsea Old Town Hall. I’ve wriggled out of exhibiting at fairs for more than a decade (with the honourable exception of the London Map Fair on the grounds that a). it’s the largest specialist fair of it’s kind in Europe and b). I’m one of the organisers). My main reasons for fair avoidance are that I’m already in my shop for six days a week, and keeping the shop open with a minimum of disruption always has to take priority. However, Leo Cadogan took over the running of the Chelsea fair this year (with tremendous aplomb) and he came up with a suggestion for a shared Cecil Court stand which it would have been churlish to refuse, so I was part of a much enhanced Cecil Court contingent which exhibited at this year’s fair. Catching up with friends and colleagues is always congenial, but there were one or two real discoveries to be made. I was absolutely delighted with this unusual 1863 chart of light houses and light vessels around the coasts of Great Britain and north western Europe:

Prepared by A.G. Findlay, it was published under the imprint of map and chartmaker R.H. Laurie (of Laurie & Whittle fame; Findlay became manager, and took over the business on Laurie’s death in 1858) for Trinity House, and it’s the Trinity House arms which are engraved above the title and blocked in gilt on the covers. It’s a splendid example of a chart which is both bel et utile: precise, subtle engraving and delicate hand-shading showing the nature (type of beam and frequency of light pulses) and reach of each light -which is highly complex as they often overlap. Brilliant engraving.

On that score, the actual coverage of the coast strikes me as remarkably impressive, but then, I suppose that most lights had been established in one form or another well before this time (we’re well into the classic period of modern lighthouses). The first edition was published in 1833, although that was an entirely different animal (somewhat smaller, compensating with large-scale insets of the Firths of Forth and Tay, Liverpool Bay and the mouth of the Thames).

It’s such a specialist field that no edition will have been printed in large numbers, and as using an obsolete chart would have been positively dangerous I suspect that the survival rate is pretty poor. On the other hand, this is a substantial piece (as befits the subject matter), printed with great care and handsomely and solidly bound. The gothic brass clasps are a lovely touch - most superior! This example bears the armorial bookplate of liberal politician W.E. Baxter, so it came from a good home.

I had actually begun packing up when I spotted a guide to Wyld’s Great Globe propped up on a neighbouring stand. It wasn’t there earlier … proof that not everything good goes in the first five minutes of a fair! Guides to panoramas and exhibitions like this are extremely scarce ephemeral items, and I have a particular soft spot for James Wyld the younger and his monster globe in Leicester Square. For anyone in Cecil Court this is local history and for anyone who likes maps, well, I can only say that it’s something I would dearly love to have seen myself. If only plans for a permanent ‘Cosmos Institute’ had worked out! As it is, Wyld’s guide is as close as I can get: written by Wyld himself it’s a testament to the man’s passion for geography and history, as well as his entrepreneurial flair.

You might wonder what the largest globe ever made was doing parked in the middle of Leicester Square in the first place, but the square’s association with popular entertainment is nothing new. After Frederick, George III’s son and heir, died prematurely (possibly after being hit by a cricket ball) at his home in Leicester House, Leicester Square became rather shabby. Jerry White (London in the Nineteenth Century) describes how it became a semi-permanent indoor fair for London’s middle classes, and it was also the birth place of the panorama (Burford’s rotunda). It was also first choice for the site of the Great Exhibition itself. So the derelict garden at it’s heart was the natural location for Wyld’s globe: 60 feet in diameter, the earth’s surface modelled in plaster relief around the interior, perfectly to scale and accessible for close inspection via four viewing platforms, gas-lit and ferociously hot, but still a marvel. The doors opened in 1851, one month after the Crystal Palace. Wyld includes the building among other London landmarks in the border of his New Map of London, but this is not mere self aggrandisement - it was indeed the most popular attraction in London outside the Great Exhibition itself.

Detail from the border of Wyld’s 1851 New Map of London


As the decade wore on Wyld introduced other elements to maintain interest: waxworks, stuffed beasts, topical exhibitions including one on the Crimean War which featured a relief map of Sebastopol … but the buildings were torn down in 1862. There’s an occasional whiff of scandal and skulduggery attached to Wyld’s business dealings, and there’s a discernable sniffiness in some accounts of his turf wars with the Ordnance Survey, and even in discussions regarding his indisputable flair for self promotion. Educational as the Great Globe was, it’s true that samples of Wyld’s own maps were displayed in the gallery surrounding it, and this guide itself was also an excellent advertisement for his stock. But Wyld was a rare beast: he inherited a flourishing business and actually grew it; he elected to follow his passion (this little book wasn’t written by someone who could have earned a living selling peas just as easily), brought the joys of cartography to a wider public, and still contrived to earn a decent living. Definitely on my list of map-trade heroes.

First page of Wyld’s 12 page catalogue at the end of the guide - I’ll have as much fun with this as with the rest of it!
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