Copper engraving, 38.5 x 51 cm, inset plan of York, modern hand-colour, small areas of marginal discolouration where previously tabbed into a mount, English text on verso.The map bears the relatively scarce imprint of Roger Rea the Elder and Younger. The rights to Speed’s work remained within the Humble family until 1659, when they were purchased by William Garret. Within months he had sold them to the Reas, who appear to have planned a new edition to commemorate the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. In the event publication seems to have been delayed until at least 1665, and three county maps bear the newly engraved date 1666 which suggests that it had been pushed back still further. Rea sold the copper printing plates to Richard Bassett and Thomas Chiswell, who claimed in the preface to their edition of 1676 (which does survive in reasonable numbers) that the bulk of the Reas’ edition had been destroyed in the Great Fire.
John Speed (1552-1629) is unquestionably the most significant English 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 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 great deal of historical detail on his ‘modern’ county maps and the inset town plans, some surveyed by himself, together comprise the first collection of town plans of the British Isles, all in all making the Theatre a highly decorative as well as a useful volume. It was a great success and there were editions printed throughout the seventeenth-century.