Asia in its Principal Divisions (in box), by John Spilsbury.

Curious maps

Accuracy is generally prized over creativity, yet cartographers of all periods have had a sense of humour. Ashley Baynton-Williams explains how mapmakers often use their artistic talents to create maps not only for geographical purposes but for the pleasure and entertainment of others, or simply to explore the possibilities of the map as an art form.

Map-users are accustomed to looking at and treating maps as geographical tools – for position-finding, way-finding and similar purposes – but maps have long been used in other ways. Many is the map that, by word or design, promoted the importance of a region, a country or a ruler through their pictorial representation in the map. This has long been part and parcel of mapmaking. Until at least the late 18th century most mapmaking was conducted by private individuals, reliant on generating income and perhaps on sponsorship; it is really only from the 19th century that state-financed mapping agencies supersede private endeavour.

If we regard the quest for geographical accuracy as the cartographer at work, then this second vein of mapmaking might well be called the cartographer at play: able to give full rein to his or her imagination to produce images that at one and the same time entertain the viewer and convey the message of the mapmaker, while frequently having little or no real useful geographical function.

There is no widely accepted umbrella term for such maps: colloquially they are often termed ‘cartographic curiosities’, as being both cartographic and curious, but perhaps this casual term underplays the significance of many of the maps, particularly those with an overt political or religious agenda. Yet no better term has emerged for what is quite a disparate grouping – as will be seen in the selection of items in this article.

The selection of maps can be broken down into five broad bands, not necessarily mutually exclusive:

  • game maps
  • maps in animal form
  • maps in human form
  • maps on objects
  • allegorical maps – moral, political or religious.

Game maps

The first published map-game seems to have emerged in England, which is somewhat of a surprise, as England was (relatively speaking) a publishing backwater during the period in question – the 1590s. A set of geographical playing cards was published in London in 1590; these were much-reduced copies of the maps of the counties of England and Wales taken from Christopher Saxton’s atlas of 1579. The cards were engraved by Augustine Ryther, one of the principal engravers for Saxton; the pack is of considerable rarity but the British Library was able to add a set to its collections as recently as 2013. A second set of map cards, attributed to the same man, appeared in 1605.

Beyond cards, the earliest recorded board-games featuring maps appeared in Paris, published by Pierre Duval from 1645 onwards, based on the Game of the Goose. The Game of Goose was immensely popular and a familiar sight throughout Europe from at least the 16th century and probably much earlier. The players raced round a spiral course – their moves determined by the throw of dice – with particular hazards or advantages assigned to some of the individual squares or circles on the boards. In the Duval version, the individual circles contained sections of a map. Such games were part of a general stock of maps aimed at a mature market. Duval's game map of France (1659), for example, was overtly a gambling game, with the players deciding upon the financial stake and play for money.

The Crystal Palace Game

The Crystal Palace Game [page: 0]

Henry Smith Evans' 'Crystal Palace Game' (c. 1854) is decorated with vignettes showing scenes from around the world.

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Race games of this kind were particularly suited to map themes, and cartographic variants of the Game of the Goose predominate, although by the mid-18th century British publishers were discarding the more structured format of the Goose game in favour of games based on travelling around actual maps, reflecting a change in emphasis. By the 1750s, and certainly by the 1780s, English publishers were deliberately recasting their map-games as educational, increasingly aimed at a junior audience by emphasising learning through pleasure.

Although earlier continental precursors are known, the first commercially produced jigsaw maps seem to have appeared in England, made and sold by John Spilsbury. Their actual inventor may have been French. A London trade directory of 1763 contains an entry for someone called simply Leprince, described as the ‘Inventor of the dissection of maps on wood’; this may refer to Jeanne-Marie le Prince de Beaumont (1711–1780), a French tutor and educationalist who was certainly using dissected wooden maps in her London school in the 1750s but who returned to France in 1762, or one of her half-brothers: the engraver Jean-Baptiste le Prince (1734–1781) or Jean-Robert le Prince, reportedly a geographer who died in London in or about 1762.

Asia in its Principal Divisions

Asia in its Principal Divisions (in box), by John Spilsbury.

One of the earliest commercially-produced jigsaw puzzles, Spilsbury's maps were designed for teaching world geography. George III's children were among those who were schooled with these jigsaw puzzle maps.

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Maps certainly lent themselves to being used as jigsaw puzzles, even if the early makers struggled with the intricacies of faithfully following the boundaries of counties or countries in the dissection process. With mechanisation these processes became easier, but this was coupled with a decline in the overall quality of the jigsaws, away from the heavier wooden backing to the lighter and flimsier cardboard of modern games.

Maps in animal form

The most frequently encountered of these maps is the depiction of countries in animal – zoomorphic – form; the most famous of these form a tight grouping: the Leos. During the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule, Amsterdam publishers produced a series of propaganda maps – ‘Leo Belgicus’ – representing the Low Countries (Holland and Belgium) as an invincible lion, standing firm against the oppressor. The lion, a common symbol in the arms of the towns and cities of the Low Countries, encapsulated the armed struggle of the (small) Netherlands against the might of the Spanish Empire. As the struggle evolved, a subsidiary group emerged; it became clear that the southern provinces – modern Belgium – would not win their independence, while the northern provinces – modern Holland – might. As Holland’s cause advanced, ‘Leo Hollandicus’ emerged, depicting the seven United Provinces as a triumphant lion.

The Lion of the Low Countries

The Lion of the Low Countries, by Johannes van Deutecum Jr.

The lion became a popular and enduring symbol of the Low Countries in the late 16th century, a time of great unrest for the XVII Provinces.

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Later mapmakers popularised the octopus as a not-too subtle means of portraying a country as evil and grasping, with Russia a frequent choice, but Falmouth Town Council and the landowners of London were similarly portrayed. Satirical maps from the First World War often portrayed countries as animals reflecting national characteristics: the British bulldog, the French poodle and Germany as either a dachshund or an eagle. A Ptolemaic map of the world of 1493 exemplifies regions of the world through imagery created from legendary medieval accounts, Bible history, travellers’ tales and the like.

Maps in human form

Maps in human (anthropomorphic) form are more readily understood; Britain was often portrayed as John Bull, possibly with Churchillian features, while the United States could appear as Uncle Sam. Earlier maps portrayed Europe as a queen, while a Filipino cartographer sought to portray the Spanish Empire in similar form.

Other mapmakers took their inspiration from shapes of continents, countries or regions: Olof Rudbeck when he depicted the Baltic Sea as Charon, the boatman from the classical tale, or Robert Dighton in his depiction of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland in human form, but Lilian Lancaster is perhaps the most famous exponent of caricature maps. One of her manuscript maps is presented below, finding humour in the 1880 United States Presidential election campaign.

United States: A correct outline

United States: A correct outline, by Lilian Lancaster.

Lilian Lancaster's caricature map represents the two presidential candidates – James Garfield and Winfield Scott Hancock – as squabbling children.

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Maps on objects

The invention of transfer-printing – a process whereby an image would be created on a flat-printing plate, printed to paper and while the ink was still wet, transferred to a curved surface – is credited to the engraver Robert Hancock (1731–1817), who worked at the Worcester Porcelain Factory in the early 1750s. Many of the maps of this type were commemorative, for example a simple jug celebrating Nelson’s great triumph over the French at the Battle of Trafalgar, but elaborate dinner services were also made. Sadly, because of the fragility of porcelain, very few of the oldest examples survive.

Another genre which ill survives is that of map screens: room-dividers of canvas stretched over wooden frames and decorated with maps. These were particularly popular in the 18th century as draught-excluders and personal displays of wealth and culture, in which the most important element was the impression created, rather than the maps themselves. Today, four screens with printed maps are known; the British Library has two, with the most dramatic shown here.

Screen with engraved maps, c. 1750

Screen with engraved maps, c. 1750

An extremely rare artefact, this map screen by John Bowles consists of world maps pasted to a canvas backing mounted on a wooden frame.

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Allegorical maps

Perhaps the smallest category represented here are those maps made for overt political purposes. Many propaganda maps – a number sufficient to form a study of their own – were prepared at the time of the Second World War, by both Axis and Allied Powers.

Comic Map of the Seat of War

Comic Map of the Seat of War with Entirely New Features, by Thomas Onwhyn.

One of the most famous 19th-century caricature maps, this print by Thomas Onwhyn depicts the main adversaries of the Crimean War as animals.

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One of the most allegorical maps is a very rare 16-sheet wall map of the world of 1566. This is a vicious Protestant attack on the Papacy, portraying the many ‘crimes’ of the Catholic Church as the central part of the map, within the jaws of the Devil, while the (righteous) Protestant rulers lay siege to the Catholic world.

While one thinks of the Victorian age as being one of an increasingly moralistic religious tone in both public and private life, the roots of this are often said to lie in the late Georgian period of the 18th century. Authors and mapmakers of that time exhorted the reader to follow a narrow path through life, where diversion from the path was to risk one’s soul. Yet these roots go back even further; Sir Thomas More, in 1516, used a map to illustrate his description of Utopia. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress... (1678) was suited to illustration by a map, but it was only in the 18th century that such depictions were inserted, and inspired subsequent generations of moralising authors.

Perhaps surprisingly, one subject that seems ideally suited to being mapped is the course of true love. Madame de Scudéry, in 1655, created a map of the ‘Land of Tenderness’ as a moral guide for a young lady, although the emphasis was not on the reality of love as an emotion but on its spirituality: on the propriety of doing the right thing, as dictated by the head, not the heart. Later mapmakers, among them Robert Sayer in c. 1772, saw love as a journey by sea, through treacherous and uncharted waters. In contrast, Georg Matthaüs Seutter, in the 1730s, portrayed love as war: the heart as a castle besieged, to be defended at all costs.

Allegorical map of the Siege of the Castle of Love

Allegorical Map of the Siege of the Castle of Love, by Georg Matthaüs Seutter Sr.

Georg Matthaüs Seutter's allegorical map depicts the male heart besieged by the female forces of love.

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Maps could also be used to portray love gone wrong, as in Joseph Onwhyn’s ‘Map of Green Bag Land’, a satire on the lengthy and increasingly bitter divorce battle between King George IV and his consort Queen Caroline, during which she was barred from his coronation (physically locked out on the day), and which ended only with her sad demise three weeks later.

If it is hard to see divorce as a subject of political humour, it is even more perplexing that the outbreak of the First World War spawned a number of satirical maps and games, as if the rival powers were participating in an elaborate game of fancy dress. The harsh reality of an increasingly brutal war of attrition saw these games disappear, but the war was depicted as a battle between different breeds of dog, John Bull against the German eagle, a throwing game with Germany as the target, and a game of dexterity.

Changing the Map of Europe

Changing the Map of Europe

A Financial Times competition of November 1914 challenged readers to redraw the map of Europe.

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The boundaries of the uses that maps could be put to seem to have been limited only by the imagination of their makers.

This article is an edited extract from Ashley Baynton-Williams, The Curious Map Book (London: British Library, 2015).

  • Ashley Baynton-Williams
  • Ashley Baynton-Williams is a map-dealer and researcher based in London. He has written a number of books about maps including British Map Engravers: A Dictionary of Engravers, Lithographers and their Principal Employers to 1850 (2011, with Laurence Worms), and, with Miles Baynton-Williams, New Worlds: Maps from the Age of Discovery (2006), Maps of War (2007) and Maps of North America (2008).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.