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Curator's introduction

This is the essential guide through the history of London: some 1200 printed and hand-drawn maps charting the development of the city and its immediate vicinity from around 1570 to 1860. The maps were collected, mainly during the first half of the nineteenth century, by the fashionable society designer, Frederick Crace.

Crace was a born into a family firm of interior decorators, Crace & Son of Wigmore Street. It was while the young Frederick was standing in for his father at Carlton House that he was, as he put it, "first noticed by the Prince of Wales and Mrs Fitzherbert, being at work upon gilding the iron railing of the staircase. "Royal patronage became a regular - and lucrative - part of Frederick’s life. He went on to design the exotic Chinese-inspired décor of the Music Room at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and later, when the Prince Regent became George IV, he decorated the King’s private apartments at Windsor Castle.

Crace’s appointment as Commissioner of Sewers in 1818 may seem a less glamorous distinction, but it did stimulate his interest in the history of the streets of London. Around that time, he began collecting maps and views of the city with a systematic enthusiasm that continued, despite failing health, until his death. The great value of his collection was recognised even in his own day: "no city was ever before so fully illustrated," declared Crace’s obituary in ‘The Leader’.

The collection is remarkably comprehensive. Not only did Crace acquire some of the most detailed maps of London ever created, he also collected updated editions of them. The growth of London can be traced almost decade by decade in versions of, for example, William Morgan’s map originally published in 1681, John Rocque’s from the 1740’s and Richard Horwood’s of 1791. When Crace was unable to buy a particular manuscript plan, he connived to have it traced and coloured. Some of these tracings are now the only record of their lost originals.

Unlike many lovers of London, Crace was concerned with the whole built-up area and the suburbs, not just the cities of London and Westminster. Maps, such as John Warburton’s of 1724, tell us which suburbs were considered fashionable at the time: Richmond, for example, and perhaps more surprisingly, Tottenham.

The maps often include miniatures views and panoramas. Since London has always been a city in transition, these show buildings and scenes that are now far beyond living memory. Through Crace’s maps we can witness the destruction of the Great Fire of 1666 and the attempts to rebuild the city afterwards. Inscriptions and decoration on some maps reveal the paranoia that seized Londoners in the wake of the fire and an original plan by the commissioners for the rebuilding shows the Italianate vision of London that was to remain a dream.

Crace seems to have been particularly interested in the ‘might have beens’ of London’s history. His collection includes many plans for proposals that, for better or worse, eventually came to nothing. Not all maps can be taken at face value: in their efforts to be up to date, publishers sometimes jumped the gun and included developments that never actually materialised, such as an estate of elegant Regency houses on Hampstead Heath.

The Crace Collection breathes London life. While the East End was being carved up by the docks, John Nash, the Prince Regent’s favourite architect, was shaping the modern West End. We see the new Regent’s Park and its zoo, shown complete with animals on one map. There are souvenirs of great events: routes taken by coronation processions in the eighteenth century and plans of Westminster Hall set out for a state trial. Contemporary preoccupations with transport and sanitation are reflected in the number of maps including information about hackney carriage and ferry fares, about canals, and about drainage.

The economic sinews of the capital are exposed too in, for example, the 18th century plan of Rugby School’s estate near Great Ormond Street, which lists rents and fees, or the eighteenth-century plans of the many rented buildings from which the Mercers’ and Haberdashers’ Company reaped enormous profits.

In London’s long history, some things never seem to change: getting around has always been a problem. From 1653 there’s an early A to Z made for ‘Cuntrey-men in the famous Cittey of London’, and from 1832 a game - rather like a maze - in which the winner is the first reach St Paul’s Cathedral from the Strand avoiding the road works!

The documents range in size from large rolled maps to small plans cut from rent books. Some of the most famous maps of London curl up alongside virtually unknown plans of individual properties. Common to every one is the pride mapmakers and their customers took in London, then as now, the ‘Flower of Cities All’.

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