Cartography as art

Another WordPress blogger recently posted some pretty awesome maps-as-art. Cool stuff.

Cartography-as-art is a whole dimension beyond those boring you-are-here atlases. Personally I’ve had a long fascination with old maps. The way the history of human exploration has been effectively recorded by ongoing generations of mappers. The evolution from “here be dragons” to the eventual mechanisms by which the world could be laid out on paper. And finally the translation of one or two into Google Earth. – check ’em out, if you haven’t already.

A photo I took of a completely different street in Amsterdam.

To me the amazing thing about all these maps is that the further back you go, the more art-like they become. If you dig through old antiquarian shops you can often find some real gems. It’s coming up 15 years since I found a shop in Hobart (of all places) which sold prints of all kinds of maps, including Jan Jansson’s ‘Mar di India’. I presume the print was taken from the version held by the National Library of Australia. I had my copy framed, and it sat on the wall of my writing office – along with several other maps I picked up in the same shop – for a decade.

The Dutch, of course, were rather enthusiastic about cartography during the seventeenth century – mostly so they could find their way to various trade prospects in the Far East. Places that might offer black tulips at something less than the price of a house. Or spices. That sort of thing.

Some years ago I found a shop a couple of blocks off Dam square in Amsterdam that had a lot of out-of-print reproductions of various maps. I walked out with a tube of them. None of which I have yet got around to framing, but that’s another story.

The other side of these wonderful pieces of human abstraction is that it’s not too many centuries since maps – no matter how artistic or well decorated – were state secrets. It was about the time Elizabeth I was on the English throne. Because back then most people knew their local area, but not much else (“arrr, you be from next village – arrr, we don’t have many foreigners here. Not live ones, anyways.'”).

The thing was that any government which had an accurate map could plan an invasion. Sad but true.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011