Few of King George Ill’s varied interests seem to have been stronger than his fascination with geography. As a child of eleven, when he had barely learned to read, he was painted sitting next to a globe with his brother, the Duke of York. Though an unpromising pupil, George grew into one of the most cultured of English monarchs when he succeeded his grandfather at the age of twenty-two.
Topography was one of the King’s favourite studies: "he copies every capital chart," observed a contemporary, "takes models of all celebrated fortifications, knows the soundings of the chief harbours in Europe and the strong and weak sides of most of the fortified towers."
Scattered on shelves and tucked away in drawers of the royal palaces were a considerable number of atlases, maps, plans and charts that had been part of the working libraries of sovereigns and their consorts since the Restoration in 1660. On this foundation, George III began building his topographical collections from the mid-1760s, a period during which Britain was becoming the most prolific, and arguably the most technically skilled, producer of maps and prints in the world.
The King was well served by his librarian, Frederick Augusta Bamard, who employed agents throughout Europe in his mission to acquire large, ready-made collections as well as individual maps and atlases. As ’new found lands’ were opened up beyond Europe by commercial exploration, their territories were mapped and their place-names given the British imperial stamp: Georgia, Georgetown, King George’s Sound. Single maps and bound volumes formally presented to the King by his subjects at home and abroad, and by the occasional foreign visitor, were incorporated into his collections.
George also regularly held on to material sent for the monarch’s inspection and - it must have been assumed - return. This accounts for the presence of original watercolour views by royal engineers of Boston, Montreal and Quebec. When a particularly attractive set of topographical ink and wash drawings of the convict colony at Port Jackson crossed his desk, George simply purloined the lot for his own collection.
After 1800, George III began to withdraw from active involvement in collecting as his eyesight degenerated into total blindness and his mental state grew ever more precarious. As a result, the inflow of secret government mapping dried up and the collection’s personal, somewhat quirky, quality faded. Nonetheless, the principles George had established, as interpreted by the faithful Bamard, continued to inform the growth of the collection.
King George Ill’s Topographical Collection contains some 50,000 items, dating back from 1824 to around 1500. As well as manuscript and printed maps, many of which are treasures of cartography, the collection includes topographical drawings, watercolours and prints, a few letters and reports, and some very rare local printed ephemera. Around 40% of the collection relates to the British Isles and 10% to the former Colonies. About a third is taken up by the countries of Europe associated with the Grand Tour. France, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy are all strongly represented.
There are works by leading eighteenth-century watercolourists, among them, Paul Sandby, William Pars and Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, and probably the largest single collection of architectural drawings by Nicholas Hawksmoor.
The collection is far more than a mere accumulation of maps and views. It’s an expression of British patriotism, brought together at a time when industrial and agricultural revolutions, conspicuous prosperity, a balanced constitution and relative political freedom, coupled with growing military, commercial and imperial might were making Britain a world leader and a source of envy and emulation abroad.
Ephemeral material, tipped in if it included a view or other topographical information, adds a further dimension to the collection. British eighteenth-century civilisation can be explored not only through accomplished watercolours, aquatints, engravings, lithographs, maps and plans, but also through the advertisements, annual reports, broadsides, bills, amateur watercolours, sketch maps and printed propaganda that formed the warp and weft of everyday life during the Age of Enlightenment.
The King’s Topographical Collection may owe its origin to the geographical enthusiasms of a monarch, but it breathes the interests, activities and attitudes of his people.