British Map Engravers: a new dictionary

Forty copies of the new Dictionary of British Map Engravers (Laurence Worms & Ashley Baynton-Williams; Rare Book Society 2011, £125) were wheeled into my shop on Friday afternoon – after I’d explained that a forklift with a wooden pallet wouldn’t make it onto Cecil Court, let alone through the shop door! The distributor wasn’t being needlessly dramatic as this is a substantial volume in every respect: thick, solidly produced (in an aesthetically pleasing ‘this-won’t-fall-apart-the-first-time-you-open-it’ sort of way), and above all it is both well written and immensely scholarly. There’s something fresh on each of its 774 pages and it supersedes all comparable works at a stroke. I’ve only had a few hours to make its acquaintance, but I know that it will be sitting within easy reach of my desk for years, if not decades, to come. We’ll become old friends.

The blurb on the jacket describes it as “essential for all serious libraries, all serious map and print collectors, all serious scholars of the printed image in the British Isles, every map and print-dealer”. I’m not sure who wrote that (Laurence or Ashley?) but I can’t quibble. I would extend the sentiment to embrace everyone dealing with illustrated works published in the British Isles before the end of the nineteenth century (as the subjects only had to begin their careers before 1850 to warrant inclusion). Not every engraver will be present – not every engraver is known to have made a map – but there is plenty of crossover with other genres. The book will also have a reach far beyond the British Isles: British engravers mapped the world, and their work is to be found in collections worldwide. I could add that you might also enjoy it if you are only a little bit serious: if, like me, you enjoy dipping into dictionaries at random.

Laurence-signing
Laurence signing in the shop on Monday

 

The dictionary is the result of at least twenty five years of research by both authors, both of whom are highly knowledgeable members of the rare map trade. Laurence and Ashley had been working independently until, in a moment of serendipity a few months ago, they realised that Ashley had been concentrating on the physical aspects of the maps themselves while Laurence had mostly been unearthing biographical information about the engravers who made them. With so little overlap the outcome of their combined half-century of scholarship is extraordinary.

Ashley-signing
Ashley dropped in on Wednesday – all copies signed and ready for the launch!

 

The scope of the book is broad. It covers engravers rather than everyone involved in the map trade (map sellers and map makers are not necessarily the same thing, although the distinction is often blurred). However, within that remit, a decision has been made to be as inclusive as possible. Anyone who can be there is there, including foreign born engravers working in the British Isles (or for British publishers) and British born engravers who made new lives overseas, often in America, Canada and Australia. John Rocque properly merits four pages, but by the same token Dirck Gripj of Amsterdam who engraved two of the maps for Speed’s Prospects also rates a mention. There are valiant (and plausible) attempts to identify engravers on (quite literally) the margins of great works, for example the “J.T.” who engraved five of the sheets for Horwood’s landmark map of London in the 1790s. I think I’ve finally unscrambled the four James Basires  (a singular lack of imagination in that family) and we’re as close as we’ll every be to distinguishing between the three James Wallises operating in London in the early nineteenth century (the bookseller; the jeweller and engraver; the map-engraver and bookseller).

To be included one only has to be known for one map, such as John Spurr (a map of matrimony in 1839), and engraving need not have been the primary occupation of the subject. Indeed, the broad range of activities which engravers turned to for financial support is one of the most engaging aspects of the book. John Westwood of Birmingham is described as “engraver, die-sinker, coffin furniture-maker, scale-maker, trade-token manufacturer, medalist etc” (my italics) and Joseph Zanetti is listed as “printseller, publisher, carver, gilder, looking-glass and picture-frame maker’. Both Westwood and Zanetti were declared bankrupt – another feature of the entries on almost every page. Many of the greatest and most original cartographers shared the same fate. Making a living from maps has never been easy.

The research linking maps with their makers gives a fresh sense of the scale of of the achievements of mapmakers such as Mogg or Reynolds, who created a far broader body of work than I had imagined. It also sheds light on who worked for whom – the relationships between engraver and publisher. And the ferreting through wills, census returns and parish registers (not to mention trial records …) puts flesh on the bones of people who had long been reduced to names on maps. In some cases it has even established gender (E can stand for Elizabeth, and S for Selina as well as Sydney).

Some of the stories which have emerged are sensational. There’s at least one case of high treason (John Seller the elder) and several cases of forgery – always a temptation for highly skilled engravers for whom banknotes might prove more remunerative than maps. I now know that W.R. Gardner engraved far more interesting material than I’d given him credit for (e.g. Bradshaw’s Canal Map, plus some of those banknotes I just mentioned) and I also know that he absconded with £10,000 of ill-gotten gains, last seen taking ship for New York. I’ve also discovered that so eminent a figure as John Tallis was from Birmingham (my old stamping-ground; I shall now imagine him speaking with a midlands twang) and after he arrived in London he lived round the corner from where I live today until he too, like so many of his colleagues, was declared bankrupt; he’s buried in an unmarked grave.

Talking of accents, Robert Morden, the seventeenth-century mapmaker, also appears in the historical record as ‘Mordent, Mordant and Mardent’, which the authors suggest may be a clue to a north country origin. Identifying ‘our’ Robert Morden with these references in a wide range of sources adds a great deal of colour. Knowing that Samuel Pepys was among Morden’s customers and that Robert Hooke took coffee with him at Garraway’s and Mann’s will add an indefinable something to his work! Every time I look at examples of his work – even his county maps, which are still widely available – where I had formerly appreciated them only for the clarity and elegance of the workmanship I now know something of the man who created them.

The book is lavishly and imaginatively illustrated: maps, portraits, invoices, receipts, advertisements and trade cards, and some surprising images of the shops themselves (who knew that Rocque’s shop was next to the Rummer Tavern in Hogarth’sNight?) Many of the images have been supplied by the BM and the trade (I’m credited for a John Bartholomew bill-head and the cover of a geographical game published by John Walker) but the core of the collection was assembled by Ashley over many years. For as long as I’ve known him he’s been ready to snap (and carefully file) images of any map he’s never seen before, and it was a joy to recognise old friends put to good use at last: for example, the cover of John Passmore’s 1847 edition of Wallis’ Railway Game, and the proposals for Regent Street engraved by Michael Thompson for Faden in 1814 (coincidentally I bought that back recently – it’s hanging on the wall of the shop as I type).

The family trees are among the most original aspects of the book. For the first time one can trace the family and professional relationships which bound the early British map trade together into a coherent whole – ties of marriage and apprenticeship as well as birth. Thanks to Laurence’s diagrams one can follow an unbroken chain from the Elizabethan engraver William Rogers all the way through to James Wyld, cartographer to George IV. One can also follow the line that leads from John Seller to Thomas Jefferys and Thomas Kitchin by way of Emanuel Bowen. Benjamin Baker (engraver to the Ordnance Survey) no longer seems an isolated figure: as Laurence explained at the London Map Fair lecture in June, he was deeply embedded in the trade.

Inspired by practices developed by some of the engravers themselves (e.g. Richard Blome) Laurence and Ashley decided to publish the book by subscription (‘never again’, said Laurence), but there are still copies available.

‘This will be indispensable’ I said, when the books arrived. ‘It’s awesome’ said the friend I was drinking coffee with, rather more succinctly. He’s right. We’ll be having a launch party in Cecil Court on 21st of this month – drop me a line if you’d like to come along. You can always buy a copy of the book while you’re here…