Copper engraving, 38.5 x 50.5 cm, modern hand colour, one or two trivial marginal nicks and tears and a couple of light spots and stains, map of Ireland with English text on verso. The costumed figures illustrate Speed’s perception of the different degrees of Irish society: ‘gentle’, ‘civill’ and ‘wilde’. John Speed (1552-1629)
Speed had no official status as a cartographer and only limited access to the best available official maps, many of which were in manuscript form. For his general map he does seems to have access to some of Robert Lythe’s surveys of central and southern Ireland made in the 1570s, and he also drew heavily on the printed maps by Gerard Mercator of 1595, and Baptista Boazio’s of 1599. It was the most advanced published map of Ireland of its day, only fully superseded by William Petty’s in the 1680s.
Speed is unquestionably the most significant British map-maker of the seventeenth-century. A brief note, from Granger’s Bibliographical History of England (1779) contains most of the information we have about Speed’s life: “John Speed, who was bred a Tailor, was by the generosity of Sir Fulk Grevil, his patron, set free from a manual employment and enabled to pursue his studies, to which he was strongly inclined by the bent of his genius. The fruits of them were his Theatre of Great Britain, containing an entire set of maps of the counties drawn by himself, his History of Great Britain, richly adorned with seals, coins & medals, from the Cotton collection; and his Genealogies of Scripture, first bound up with the Bible, in 1611 which was the first edition of the present English translation. His maps were very justly esteemed & his History of Great Britain, was, in its kind incomparably more complete, than all the histories of his predecessors put together …”
The first edition of Speed’s “Theatre” was published in 1612. It was the first full atlas of the British Isles, and the first attempt made by an Englishman to match the achievements of the great continental publishing houses – although much of the engraving of the copper plates was performed in Amsterdam by Jodocus Hondius.
Speed was an antiquary, and intended that his atlas should be read in conjunction with his history of Britain. He managed to include a wealth of historical detail on his ‘modern’ county maps (carefully selected to illustrate a pro-Stuart view of British identity) and the inset town plans, many surveyed by himself, together comprise the first collection of town plans of the British Isles. All in all the ‘Theatre’ is a highly decorative and politically charged volume, as well as a useful one. It was a great success and there were editions printed throughout the 17th century.