Antique maps chart London’s journey through history

According to Jonathan Potter, doyen of British antique map dealers, “a collection of London maps alone would involve hundreds of different publications regardless of variant editions of one map”. There are small-scale maps, showing the Cities of London and Westminster in the context of the surrounding counties; there are sectional maps and ward plans; there are bird’s eye panoramas; there are large-scale surveys, giving streets and houses; and there are descriptive maps and diagrammatic plans, such as Booth’s 1889 Map of London Poverty or Harry Beck’s classic 1932-33 Underground Railways of London.

The most recent addition to the capital’s specialist dealers in antique atlases, maps, plans, sea charts, globes and literature on voyages and exploration is Daniel Crouch, who worked for Bernard Shapiro in St George’s Street before opening his own gallery in Bury Street, St James’s earlier this year. He has made a brave effort to meet Potter’s implied challenge, and until December 22 his exhibition Mapping London offers 100 examples, from the first to survive, by Braun and Hogenberg, to Beck.

Although the Hogenberg was first published as the first plate in Civitates Orbis Terrarum in 1572 — Crouch’s version is two years later — it is based on earlier information and a plan commissioned by the merchants of the Hanseatic League around 1550, so St Paul’s Cathedral still has its spire, which caught fire and collapsed in 1561. The map is titled “Londinium Feracissimi Angliae Regni Metropolis” — capital of the most fertile Kingdom of England — and in testament to its origins with the Royal and City arms there is a cartouche in praise of the Hansa merchants. It shows houses and churches, trees and fields with cattle, bull and bear baiting and the river full of craft. This example has “good original colouring”, a reminder that if the colour is not mentioned in a dealer’s description it may be later, or indeed modern.

Braun and Hogenberg was copied and adapted for many years, even after London had expanded far beyond what it showed.

Unfortunately only two copies of the 2ft 412in by 6ft 6in map produced around 1591 and attributed to Ralph Agas are believed to survive, one owned by the Corporation of London, another in the Pepysian Library. But Crouch has one of the reworked versions published in 1737 by George Vertue, the engraver and father of British art history. From the 17th century there is the post-Great Fire Ogilvy & Morgan, on which the great engraver Wenceslaus Hollar worked for several years, and from the 18th the extraordinary triumphs of John Rocque in 1746 and Richard Horwood in 1799. Rocque, a Huguenot, spent nine years on his 24-sheet 6ft 334in by 12ft 714in survey, while Horwood, who was working for the Phoenix Fire Office, asserted that his Plan showed every house in London, Westminster and Southwark.

Several of the creators of these maps had interests beyond cartography and printing. Cluer Dicey of Aldermary Cthurchyard, for instance, responsible for A New and Accurate Plan . . . in 1765, also published pamphlets and chapbooks and was the largest distributor of “Daffy’s Famous and Original Elixir Salutis” — a powerful and popular diuretic. One wonders whether this might not be the origin of the phrase “a dicey stomach”. Five years earlier Richard Bennet’s New and Correct Plan . . . including all ye New Buildings was to be found on Clarke & Co’s “new patent sliding fans”. This also informed a purchaser of the hackney coach rates. Hackney fares reappear on Pigot’s New Plan in the 1820s, and dictate the form of an advertisement in the 1880s for The Royal Courts of Justice Central Hotel on the south side of the Strand. It shows “its situation by a shilling cab fare radius”.

Maps were produced to catch the custom of “the Stranger” visiting for the Great Exhibition in 1851, who was warned by James Reynolds to be “vigilant and circumspect . . . lest he become the prey of some of the swarms of knaves”. Knaves and similar were a concern of the social reformer Charles Booth, and a weapon in his campaign was the Descriptive Map of London Poverty, 1889, on which the dwellings of “The Lowest Class, Vicious, semi-criminal” are shown in black, those of the “Very Poor, casual. Chronic Want” in blue and so up to red for the “Well-to-do. Middle Class” and yellow for “Upper-middle and Upper classes. Wealthy”.

The show closes with the first and second states of Beck’s Underground, a design which has most remarkably stood the test of time.

The pleasures of forming such a collection are many. One can dream over these sheets for pleasure or use them for information — among my most used reference books are Guildhall Library editions of Rocque and Horwood. It is fascinating to watch the advancing tide of brick and later tarmac and to mark the signs of submerged villages and former trades and ways of life in the flotsam of later street names.

In his authoritative introduction to Collecting Antique Maps (revised 1999), Jonathan Potter noted a decade ago that “good antique maps are still available at prices that compare favourably with most other areas of collecting”, and by and large that is still the case. Crouch’s list runs up from £50 for a little map published pseudonymously in 1823, to £28,000 for a copy of Thomas Porter’s exceptionally rare Newest & Exactest Mapp published in about 1655 under Cromwell’s Protectorate. Only two others are known. The Braun and Hogenberg is priced at £9,500, the best of several Rocques at £20,000, the Horwood at £12,000 and Booth at £14,000.