British Library to put very big royal atlas online

The British Library in London is a quarter of the way through a major project to re-catalogue, digitise and conserve a 50,000-strong map collection assembled by Britain’s famous collector-king, George III (1738-1820). Among the objects to be digitally photographed is the world’s second largest atlas, which measures a huge 1.8m by 2.3m. The Klencke Atlas, named after the Dutch sugar merchant Johannes Klencke, who presented it to Charles II in 1660, contains 41 large-scale maps made in the 1620s and 1630s, a period known as the Golden Age of Dutch cartography. The maps were intended to hang on the wall, but were bound into one giant book.

Tom Harper, the British Library’s curator of antiquarian mapping, calls the atlas “the single most important item in George III’s maps collection”—an assemblage that forms the centrepiece of the library’s 4.5 million-strong collection of maps. “It is completely impractical, completely overblown and totally over the top,” Harper says, adding that Charles II must have liked it, because Klencke was knighted and received several important trade concessions fr om Britain in regards to his sugar plantations in Dutch Brazil.

The enormous tome, which includes maps of all the known sugar plantations in Suriname in the 17th century, was kept in the king’s cabinet of curiosities. It has been on wheels since the 1950s, Harper says, so that “it can be trundled around” when people want to see it.

Unsexy but significant cause

The Klencke Atlas and the rest of the collection, once digitised, will be accessible online, on the library’s Transforming Topography website. “Producing high-quality digital images of a map of this size is actually quite difficult,” Harper says. “You have to take a number of images and stitch them together.”

The London rare books and maps dealer Daniel Crouch is funding the digitisation of the atlas, as well as 80 others from the collection. “The Klencke Atlas and George III’s topographical collection include a vast amount of material that is unique in terms of condition and content,” Crouch says. “These maps just aren’t anywhere else and most are better preserved than any other known copies.”

Crouch admits that it is “an unsexy cause—it’s not like naming a gallery. It is the digitisation of a lot of old stuff.” He stresses that, although “it doesn’t sound important or life-saving, it actually is. It’s the kind of resource that will be used in years to come and will make the holdings of the British Library accessible to all.” Harper says that the British Library has already raised a “sizable” sum towards the project, but a further £500,000 is needed. Some of the material is extremely fragile and requires conservation work, including a series of Chinese panoramas and early surveys of Florida.

Harper hopes that this project will enable the collection to be used for more than just cartography and geography. “It’s cultural history; it’s the Enlightenment. It tells us so much more than wh ere things were,” he says.

George III: King, Collector, Map Thief

As well as maps, George III’s collection, which he started to build in the mid-1760s, consists of topographical views, manuscripts, watercolours, prints, letters and ephemera from around 1500 to 1824. It also includes important assemblages amassed by others, including the famous Albani collection, which George III bought from Cardinal Albani, a renowned arts patron and collector, in 1762.

Harper describes George III as a “classic armchair traveller”, who preferred to visit distant lands via his maps rather than actually travelling to them. He kept his beloved maps in a room next to his bedroom. “We have this vision of him, in his nightgown, sneaking next door in the middle of the night to look at them,” Harper says.

George III was notorious for “collecting, borrowing and stealing them from wherever he could”, Harper says. Among the many maps that the king simply chose not to return was a series of 18th-century land surveys produced by British military surveyors for the American Board of Trade, including one of the Florida coast made by the German cartographer John William Gerard De Brahm. “It’s huge—around 7m long. Nothing on North America had been produced on this scale before. It is the first cartographic expression of land across the sea for the king,” Harper says. The British Library also has French maps that were “captured” by George III.