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How to See the Sea

How to See the Sea

One of our customers was momentarily confused by John Thomson’s 1817 chart of the Mediterranean. ‘Ah, that what it is! I thought it was an island’. Fair enough; while it isn’t quite Rubin’s vase (a reversing optical illusion) the full body colour in the Med and the largely blank landmass surrounding it (no political boundaries, mountain ranges, capital cities etc) doesn’t conform to expectations of what a map should do. Perhaps it doesn’t help that it isn't the colour we might expect. The Med is the focus of Thomson’s chart. Only coastal towns are relevant, and the insets are all of Mediterranean ports (including Algiers, showing the 1816 Anglo-Dutch bombardment which was carried out in a bid to effect the release of Christian slaves and force the Dey to end the practice). Once we understand that it’s obvious, but it set me thinking about how other map-makers have depicted the sea and with what success. Here are another three maps, with very different purposes.

Staying with the Mediterranean is Abraham Ortelius’ map of the wanderings of Aeneas according to the first six books of Virgil’s Aeneid –Virgil’s very deliberate attempt to give the Romans a foundation epic to rival Homer. It’s a Roman Odyssey, so the focus of the map is the sea. It was published in the Parergon, Ortelius’ atlas of ancient geography which is perhaps his crowning achievement. He drew the maps himself and has here made a careful selection of places relevant to the narrative, including Troy, Carthage and (of course) Rome. As with Thomson’s chart the lack of detail on land helps draw the viewer’s eye to the sea, but master engraver Jan Wierix has skilfully realised Ortelius’ vision. His sea is lively, almost three dimensional, with no two parts the same. The eye is particularly drawn to his depiction of the devasting storm which ravages the Trojan fleet and drives Aeneas into Carthage.

Our example of John Speed’s map of Ireland was published in 1616, a close contemporary of Ortelius’ map. The engraving was undertaken by Jodocus Hondius in Amsterdam, so it is part of the same Low Countries tradition. However, the focus this time is Ireland itself rather than the seas which surround it. Hondius’ composition is perfect: his regular, shimmering waves are a backdrop rather than a distraction from the detail ashore. A scattering of sea monsters and galleons provide additional visual cues.

The depiction of the sea in those last two maps is pictorial, like other map symbolism of the period: pictures of waves, just like the pictures of mountains we looked at last time. Our last map is mostly sea, and it is a proper chart which was intended for use in navigation. It was engraved by Hendrik van Loon for the original French edition of the ‘Neptune François’, published in 1693 and one of the best sea atlases of its day. It covers the Atlantic northwest of the British Isles, including the Faroe Islands and St Kilda’s as well as the Western Isles, the Orkneys and the Shetland Islands. The land is distinguished by subtle shading along the coast and the sea itself is plain, but marked out with rhumb lines and compass roses to assist with plotting a course. It is also broken up by a grid, which would have helped any user working in poor light below deck. The engraving is clear and simple, and it had to work in black and white: most versions of charts used at sea were uncoloured or had limited colour (paint runs when wet). Highly coloured examples, if coloured at the time, probably sat in a library somewhere.

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