Map screens, by their nature, are particularly fragile objects. They were constructed of a wooden frame with the maps glued to a coarse canvas backing stretched, in the manner of a painting, across the frame. As such they were extremely vulnerable to damage but also to extremes and variations of temperature. Heat makes paper and canvas expand or contract at different speeds, which tends to lead to the paper tearing and flaking off the backing. As a consequence, worldwide there are only four British map screens recorded today: two in a private collection and two in the British Library.
This impressive folding map screen ‒ six foot high and over eight feet long ‒ is one of the British Library's two surviving examples. Large sections of it remain intact, though some parts are well-used and worn. It was made around 1750 and decorated with maps designed by Thomas Jefferys, geographer to Frederick, Prince of Wales. In their day, such screens were probably fairly common in smart households. Indeed, one like this features in the climactic ‘screen scene’ in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s School for Scandal (1777).
George Willdey (1676?–1737) was the first London mapseller to advertise map screens, at first obliquely, but in a catalogue of 1738, his heir Thomas boasted of selling:
the best large Map of the World ever yet done in England, and the most useful of any yet seen; the Two Hemispheres are Six Foot long, and Three Foot deep; round it is generally placed a Sett of 20 Sheet Maps of the Kingdoms and chief Dominions in Europe, being those before mentioned, beginning with the Northern Hemisphere and ending with the Map of Flanders, which makes it ornamental and useful. This Map made in a Screen (as a large quantity of them are now used for) is the most diverting and instructive Screen yet seen; it may also be fixed up in different Manners and Sizes, for Rooms, Passages, Stair-cases, Halls, &c.
These elegant screens were probably used, not only as draught excluders and ornamental features, but also as informal educational tools. They taught geographical knowledge to the family and servants, and conveyed a sense of worldliness to friends and visitors.
The screen illustrated here was assembled by John Bowles (1701–1779) in about 1746, the date found on the central four-sheet map of the world. The large world map is surrounded by 20 smaller maps showing parts of Britain, Europe and the two celestial hemispheres. Starting with maps of London, Oxford and Cambridge, they work outwards in ever-decreasing scale. This reflects and reinforces the contemporary Anglo-centric worldview of an educated Englishman. This screen was probably made for someone with connections to the British colonies in America, which are depicted in two of the smaller maps.
Five of the outer maps come from Bowles’ older stock: the two maps flanking the world map were published by Herman Moll in 1715 and 1717 respectively and three of the maps along the base were published by William Berry in the 1680s. All these plates had subsequently come into the possession of Bowles, and as all the maps were by now rather out of date, they made excellent candidates for being pasted on a screen in this fashion. They were both decorative and cheap compared to more up-to-date maps from Bowles’ current stock. There are also 10 views of London, or London buildings.
In Act 4, Scene 3 of Sheridan’s play, there’s a screen ‘hung … with maps’ at the centre of Joseph Surface’s library (4.3.112). It serves as a powerful symbol of his artful deception, as well as a perfect prop for raucous physical comedy.
As the scene opens, Joseph hopes to seduce Lady Teazle while maintaining his public facade as a ‘Man of Sentiment’. But when her husband Sir Peter arrives, Lady Teazle ducks behind the screen to preserve her ‘reputation’. The tension mounts as we wait for over 350 lines – the longest scene in the play – before the screen comes crashing down. As Charles reveals Lady Teazle, he also exposes Joseph as a hypocrite and scoundrel. The screen might be described as a weighty ‘source of knowledge’ (4.3.112), but it has to collapse before the characters gain self-knowledge and insight. This might subtly remind us how fragile and unstable the English gentleman’s power is.