About the project

Picturing Places is a free educational resource providing unprecedented access to the British Library’s unrivalled holdings of topographical materials. The site highlights a selection of important items from our vast and varied collections, including prints, drawings, paintings, books, maps, letters, notes and ephemera. Users can examine high-resolution digitised images and read articles by emerging and established scholars exploring the history, context and significance of these images.

Picturing Places demonstrates that topography involves far more than straightforward ‘pictorial evidence’ of what a place looked like in the past. We showcase some of the Library’s most treasured topographical materials, including Tudor views collected by Robert Cotton and maps and views owned by George III. But much of this material remains uncharted, and is being brought to wider attention for the first time. The first phase of Picturing Places features over 500 collection items, most never published before, and over 100 articles providing fresh perspectives and new ideas.

This website is an outcome of a British Library research project entitled Transforming Topography, which started in 2013. This has involved more than 90 scholars examining the picturing of places in a wider sense, expanding our story of topography and challenging perceptions that it is merely descriptive and of interest only as precursor to a higher form of British landscape art which developed after 1750. A major conference at the British Library in May 2016 brought many of these scholars together in animated discussion, and the films of the event are available on this site. We hope that the website will continue to grow, opening up more of our collections and continuing to transform perceptions of topography.

Special thanks to the Transforming Topography external project board for their expert help and encouragement: Professor John Barrell, Dr John Bonehill and Professor Stephen Daniels.

Professor Mark Hallett and Dr Sarah Turner from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art have helped shape the project from its outset, supporting an exploratory workshop in 2013 and the 2016 conference and awarding a Curatorial Fellowship towards the creation of the site.

The project has also been generously supported by a Special Project Grant from the Marc Fitch Fund and further donations from the Thriplow Charitable Trust, Coles Medlock Foundation, Finnis Scott Foundation and SP Lohia Foundation.

The project builds on externally funded research the British Library is currently conducting on George III’s topographical collection.

British Library collections featured in Picturing Places include the:

  • Arundel Manuscripts: the manuscripts collected by Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel. They include the Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, a notebook by Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Cotton Manuscripts: comprising 1,400 manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls and seals collected by the antiquary and politician, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (b. 1571-1631). This collection contains some of the British Library's greatest treasures, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, Magna Carta, and the unique manuscript of Beowulf.
  • Crace Collection: the maps and views collected by interior decorator Frederick Crace (1779-1859) and sold to the British Museum by his son John Gregory Crace (1809-1889) in 1880. The collection is now divided with the maps held by the British Library and views by the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.
  • Grenville Collection: encompassing approximately 16,000 works (in 20,240 volumes) collected by the statesman and British Museum Trustee Thomas Grenville and bequeathed to the Museum (now the British Library) in 1846. The collection contains printed books from the 15th to 19th centuries, and includes incunabula and post-incunabula, early voyages, bibles, vernacular poetry and romances (especially Italian and Spanish), and English literature.
  • Harley Manuscripts: the manuscripts owned by Robert Harley and Edward Harley, earls of Oxford, which were purchased for the nation in 1753 and form one of the most outstanding collections of the British Library. 
  • Holkham Hall Manuscripts: British Library Add MSS. 47672-47683, which formed part of the Library of the Earls of Leicester at Holkham Hall, Norfolk. These were purchased with the assistance of the National Art-Collections Fund.
  • King’s Library: the book collection of King George III (1738-1820). The collection covers a vast range of subjects, from early printing and philosophy to architecture, topography and painting; from astrology and biology to agriculture and ancient languages. George III’s books were given to the nation by his son George IV. The library is considered one of the most significant collections of the Enlightenment.
  • King’s Manuscripts: George III’s collection of medieval and post-medieval manuscripts that were transferred to the British Museum by George IV. The manuscripts were at first kept with the printed books but were transferred to the Department of Manuscripts in 1840.
  • King’s Topographical Collection: George III’s great collection of maps and views. His books, maps, views, maritime charts, manuscripts and coins and medals were given to the nation by his son George IV.  
  • Royal Manuscripts: the manuscript collection donated by George II, containing nearly 2000 manuscripts including around 1200 illuminated or decorated volumes. The royal donation was housed in the newly founded British Museum and now is held at the British Library. Highlights from the collection include Henry VIII’s Psalter and an autograph copy of the Basilikon Doron by James I of England. 
  • Sloane Manuscripts: part of the great collection of manuscripts and artefacts gathered by the physician Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) and purchased at his death from his executors by the Act of Parliament which also established the British Museum.

The British Library is grateful to the following organisations for their contribution to Picturing Places, which has included the digitisation of their collections:

Bibliothèque nationale de France

Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The British Museum

Folger Shakespeare Library

Gainsborough’s House

Getty Research Institute

The John Carter Brown Library, Brown University

National Library of Scotland

National Library of Wales

Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Royal Collection Trust

The Salisbury Museum

The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Tate Gallery, London

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Warden and Scholars of Winchester College

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

All content on Picturing Places was published online on 6 April 2017 unless otherwise stated.