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Europe as a Lady, England as George and the Dragon

Europe as a Lady, England as George and the Dragon

I’m often asked about satirical maps (really! but I do spend all day in a map shop) and it’s a fascinating field: the maps are decorative and entertainingly inventive, and by their nature they are highly revealing about the societies which produced them. Unfortunately, from a collector’s point of view (not to mention mine) one now needs patience and deep pockets to build a collection, but material does still turn up. The temptation to anthropomorphise (and of course some of the maps are zoomorphic too …) just about everything from clouds to shadows is almost irresistible. Although the earliest map of this kind I know of is an early fourteenth-century map by the disturbed/visionary cleric Opicinus de Canistris which represents the shores of the Mediterranean as a king and queen, I can’t believe that he was the first. Caricature or picture maps, political or playful, certainly go right back to the earliest days of printed map making. There is a whole series of maps showing ‘Europe as a lady’ or ‘Europe as a Queen’. Perhaps the most well known version is this one, from Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia

Munster’s Cosmographia, a hugely popular compendium of topographical information, folklore and travels, was first published with a modest 26 maps in 1544, mostly borrowed from his Ptolemy of 1540. By the last edition of 1628 the work had swollen to include over 260 maps and views, including, from c. 1588 onwards, this one. However, the idea is considerably earlier: it was first drawn by Johannes Putsch (Bucius) in 1537, and developed by theologian Heinrich Buenting in his Itinerarium Sacrae Scriptura of 1581 and Mathias Quad in 1587. There are other less well known variants on the theme – for example a similar map was engraved for a German newsbook, the Relatione Universalis, c. 1598. That’s also worth illustrating as I’ve only seen it once:

Europe is a depicted as a Queen: Spain is the crowned head, England and Wales the arm wielding the sword, the orb is gripped by Italy (an arm, not a boot this time!) and the skirts reach Scandinavia. The Relatione Universalis or the Continuatio, in which it appeared was an early newsbook, a precursor of the newspaper and periodical, which related contemporary historical events. It was published twice a year to coincide with the Frankfurt book fair in spring and autumn and therefore is generically known as a ‘Messrelation’. The most famous were written by Conrad Lautenbach (1534-95) under the pseudonynm Jacobus Francus and the series was continued in the same name after Lautenbach’s death. It’s finely engraved, much more subtle than the Munster woodcut, and I’d quite like another copy! Europe is personified as a Queen on the early editions of the title-page of the Mercator-Hondius Atlas and again, with the other continents paying tribute, as a vignette within Henricus Hondius’s double-hemisphere world-map of 1630. (It’s worthnoting the relationship between these purely satirical creations and political iconography contained within the decorative elements of maps in general). Over a period of a century the concept had become a familiar one, perhaps suggestive to contemporary readers of Europe’s proper place in the order of things, of her place set above the other continents. There is a suggestion that the figure is not a woman, but represents Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1519-56) and King of Spain (1516-56), the argument being that Spain was the crowned head of Europe. Just possibly this was Bucius’ original idea, but if so it took on a life of its own. I think I’d better skim quickly over the next century or so, skating over Buenting’s other maps (Asia as Pegasus and the world as a clover leaf on the basic TO pattern) and, beginning with Aitzinger’s map of 1583, the whole series of fantastically beautiful Leo Belgicus (later Leo Hollandicus) maps, which chart the phases of the bloody and brutal Dutch struggle for independence from Spain – the Eighty Years’ War. Other noteworthy creations include Balbinus’ Bohemia as a rose, centred on Prague (1677), and Gillray’s more earthy response to the threat of Napoleonic invasion in 1793: a hearty (if hardly deferential) caricature of George III contained within the coastline of England and Wales, defecating explosively on the French bumboats. I’m also going to pass over assorted whimsical maps inspired by subjects such as matrimony and gastronomy, and general caricature maps of countries. Another time. Revolutions, political upheavals and sparring between the great powers characterise the Victorian age, fertile ground for satire, and the second part of the nineteenth-century saw a flowering of this kind of map. The obvious candidate for discussion is Fred Rose but I’d like to stray off the beaten track a little way and illustrate the subject with a map by William Mecham, who drew under the pen name Tom Merry. Here it is: ‘A Map of England: A Modern St. George and the Dragon !!!’

It’s a satirical map of England and Wales illustrating the 1886 Irish Home Rule crisis, published in the Conservative periodical (and therefore taking the Tory view of things) St Stephen’s Review, in 1888. The Tory leader (Lord Salisbury as St George), successfully spears the dragon Gladstone (who in 1886 was the Liberal Prime Minister), shown with the forked tongue of Home Rule lolling from his mouth; other key figures in the crisis such as Parnell have been worked into his scaly flanks.

Although Gladstone himself was converted to the cause of Irish Home Rule he split his own party; the bill was defeated and Conservatives and Liberal Unionists swept to power in the ensuing general election. Mecham’s skills were not confined to printed periodicals: his ‘lightning cartoons’ were part of a popular music hall stage act - he was the first performer to appear in a British film. His use of cartographic features is ingenious (for example the isle of Wight becomes a pool of dragon’s blood) and the composition recalls earlier caricature maps, such as the late eighteenth century maps by Gillray and Dighton which show figures astride a whale or dolphin. However, Mecham specifically acknowledges Lillie Tennant. As a schoolgirl Tennant designed a series of cartoon maps published under the name ‘Aleph’ in 1869 (Rod Barron has done pioneering work on this); like Mecham she became a popular stage performer, known for her comic songs, and cartoon maps were clearly part of her act. Although the earliest printed depiction by Tennant of England and Wales as George and the Dragon dates from 1912, it was well known to Mecham and his audience 25 years earlier – so well known that Mecham felt honour bound to credit her. Here’s her 1912 map:

I find this cross-referencing absolutely fascinating, as an indication that makers of cartoon and satirical maps were as aware of each other and the tradition within which they worked as the ‘straight’ cartographers who often credited one another as a matter of course.

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