London on the map

Maps offer slices of the history of our ever-changing capital and Daniel Crouch has myriad rare examples on offer, says Godfrey Barker.

Daniel Defoe declared in 1726 that London was a “monstrous city”. Dr Samuel Johnson replied to this 50 years later, “No man, at all intellectual, is willing to leave London. When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

However, the advantages Johnson listed were mental and social, not aesthetic. London is a city handsome by night and dull by day. Heinrich Heine arrived in 1840 to pay homage to aristocratic palaces and found they had fled the banks of the Thames for the countryside. London was middle class to the core, dense streets of uniform houses, chaos, a labyrinth, “a modern Babylon” to Disraeli, a place of “low and vile alleys” in the words of Conan Doyle.

It leaves an overwhelming impression, announced Heine, but not one of beauty like Haussmann’s rebuilt Paris.

If you look at the winter sale of London maps at St James’s dealer Daniel Crouch (15 December-15 February), you will see the problem. What deep, inner beauty lurks in a city boasting Pissing Alley, Theeving Street, Old Fish Road, Maidenhead Lane, Blow Bladder Lane and Bloody Bridge, and so grand a thoroughfare as Regent Street?

What you find in Crouch’s earliest map, hand coloured in Cologne in 1572 by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg for German financiers, is three capitals – the walled City, the church and administrative centre Westminster three miles away through open country, and gracious South Warke on the South Bank.

Cows graze north of what is not yet Oxford Street. St Paul’s has an immense steeple, which apparently fell down in 1561. The map shows how things were then, says Crouch. And it is yours for £9,500.

The vile alleys then show up in detail on a 1560 map by Ralph Agas of which just three copies were made. In a 1737 recreation of this map by George Vertue (£3,000), you see the City spilling out through the Moore Gate and the castellated wall. Deer graze in St James’s Park. On the Banke Side, south of the river, Bear Bayting and Bull Bayting rings, shaped like the Colosseum, have sprung up. The Archbishop of Canterbury gazes angrily at them across Lambeth Marsh from Lambeth House, his not-yet palace.

By Thomas Porter’s exceptionally rare map of 1655 (£28,000) the aristocracy has seized the best views on the Thames. On the north bank, near the Savoy, are Northampton House, Buckingham House, Durham House, Worcester House and Arundell House, proof that noble noses could no longer stand the City’s “stinking dark maze”. To London’s reward, the Great Fire of 1666 burned down the worst of it from the Tower to the Temple.

Marcus Doornick’s map of 1666 shows the ravages which spread from a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane (£2,500). John Leake’s Surveigh commanded by the Right Honourable Lord Mayor at 171⁄2in to the mile shows what was left after the fire was stopped by blowing up diverse houses with powder (£2,000). Close ups show major buildings and the Fleet River, still above ground, flowing down 21st-century Faringdon Street.

Clearer yet is the 1676 map of John Ogilby and John Morgan, His Majesty’s cosmographers at 100ft per inch which, says the British Library, “is the first accurate and detailed map of London with buildings in plan instead of bird’s-eye views” (£25,000).

It set standards not matched until the Ordnance Survey 125 years later and indifferently shows palaces and prisons with the same grandeur. Thirty of 84 burned churches appear, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren.

In Robert Morden’s map of 1700 both north and south banks are lined from the Tower to Westminster and the panorama Canaletto painted has appeared – a Thames dominated by St Paul’s, Somerset House and Westminster Abbey. The nobility has further fled the smokes; the Earl of Arlington lives where the Queen does now, though destined to sell to the Duke of Buckingham in 1702 (£2,200).

And so we continue onwards through a hundred maps to Harry Beck’s Underground in 1933 (£2,200 or £850 for the second edition). This is a London you haven’t seen before.