Map of the Eure River from Pontgouin to Versailles

Mapping Europe’s waterways in George III’s Topographical Collection

George III’s Topographical Collection includes maps and views representative of ‘Canal Mania’: the intense spate of canal-building which took place in the late 18th-century Britain. Mercedes Ceron explores further.

Lake Bracciano and Tiber Valley

Map of Lake Bracciano and Tiber Valley by Carlo Fontana

This plan shows hydraulic works on Lake Bracciano which were key to supplying Rome with water 

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Among the volumes in the King’s Topographical Collection there are three albums of drawings by Carlo Fontana (1638–1714) that were once part of the Albani collection acquired by James Adam for George III in 1762.1 Two of them (118.e.14. and Maps 7.Tab.46.) evince not only Fontana’s ability as an engineer, but also the archaeological approach to public works associated with the commissions he received from Popes Alexander VII and Clement IX. The volume that contains mainly drawings for Porto d’Anzio and the aqueduct of Civitavecchia (118.e.14.) includes, for instance, a reconstruction of the course of the Tuscan Aqueduct from its origins near Tolfa to the Tyrrhenian Sea (ff. 49–50). Fontana’s studies of Roman hydraulic works in Lazio also resulted in his depiction of tunnels, trenches, catch-basins, wells, and a settling tank in another drawing from the same volume (f. 51). He probably intended to use this material in a book entitled Il Libro della Toscana antica, con la narrativa della Condottura dell'Acqua Trajana a Civita Vecchia, which was never published.2

The volume entitled ‘Acqua Paola’ in a 1716 inventory of the Albani collection (Maps 7.Tab.46.) contains Fontana’s study of the Roman aqueduct that carried water from Lago di  Bracciano to Rome, as well as his projects for its modification in 1690.3 Fontana’s research was used in his Utilissimo trattato dell'acque correnti [...] con una esatta notizia di tutto quello, ch'è stato operato intorno alla conduttura dell' Acqua di Bracciano (1696). His delicately drawn studies of engineering fit perfectly in a collection that was soon to include a significant number of designs of canals, bridges and aqueducts. In the 1829 catalogue for the King’s Topographical Collection George III’s maps of canals appear as a distinct section. The catalogue lists the Canals of England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Germany preceded by ‘Smith’s new Map of the Navigable Canals and Rivers of England, Wales and Scotland’ (1815). However, the actual maps of waterways are arranged geographically within the guard volumes corresponding to their country.

This interest in hydraulic engineering was not unusual in 18th-century Britain, where the years between 1760 and 1850 have been referred to as the ‘Canal Age’. George III’s collection includes a number of maps that can be considered representative of ‘Canal mania’, as the intense canal building of the 1790s became known. We do not know whether the King or his librarian was responsible for their acquisition, but these maps of canals were clearly expected to be part of a working royal collection. It was soon understood that improvements in transportation were essential to the success of British manufactures. Civil engineering was therefore crucial to the prosperity of a commercial nation. The collection reflects this awareness of the potential of the practical application of scientific advancement for the promotion of trade and manufacture.4

Map of the Canal d'Eure between Pontgouin and Versailles

Map of the Eure River from Pontgouin to Versailles

Louis XIV had the Canal d'Eure constructed to supply water to his palace at Versailles 

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The canal-building activities associated with Roman emperors and popes in Fontana’s volumes were continued by Louis XIV in France, with projects such as the Canal de l’Eure, built to supply water to Versailles. Maps like the Carte Particulière du Canal de la Rivière d’Eure (Maps K.Top.56.71.), dedicated to the French King by Hubert Jaillot in 1695, were representations not only of the actual course of the canal, but also of the monarch’s power to alter the physical relief of the country and the natural course of its rivers. His engineers planned aqueducts to rival the Romans, as can be seen in the ruins of the unfinished Maintenon aqueduct designed by Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633–1707). In Jaillot’s map, the aqueduct was depicted among scaffolding, workers and large blocks of stone under the title and dedication inscribed on an oval tablet decorated with palm leaves and royal heraldry. The map emphasises the scale of the royal enterprise by the contraposition of the straight and angular man-made lines of the canal and the soft undulations of terrain, rivers and streams.

Le Canal Royal de Languedoc

Includes insets with three maps, each with its title, showing the course of the Canal de Garonne and the Canal du Midi across France, its confluence with the Garonne river, and with the Orb river at Béziers, and 51 views and elevations of aqueducts, locks and basins; also title, dedication and production details within cartouche decorated with allegorical figures, cornucopia and coats of arms and medallions at centre.

The Canal de Languedoc (1662-1681), renamed Canal du Midi in 1789, connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean through the Garonne River

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Some maps of canals in the collection provided information on the techniques and engineering systems used in their construction. An example would be Jean Baptiste Nolin’s Le Canal Royal de Languedoc (1697) (Maps K.Top.56.72.), which depicts the canal built to link the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean. Following a design by Pierre-Paul Riquet (1609–1680), the Canal de Languedoc or Canal du Midi was part of a program of public works of ‘unprecedented scale and complexity’ directed by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683).5 Maps like Nolin’s were crucial to the presentation of the canal as a triumph of French engineering and as ‘a marvel of France’s New Rome, an object of admiration for people all over Europe’.6 The map is surrounded by insets showing details (usually plan and elevation) of its main engineering features, such as aqueducts, dikes and basins. It contains a dedication to the local nobility in which Nolin states that the King, with the support of his subjects, has achieved ‘what had once been attempted by the Romans in vain’. 

One century later, the Canal de Languedoc was lavishly mapped again, this time by the astronomer and geographer François Garipuy (1711–1782). Garipuy’s map (4.TAB.21.) in 22 large sheets benefited from the advances in cartography associated with the work of Cesar-François Cassini de Thury (1714-1784) at the Observatoire de Paris and the Académie des Sciences. Garipuy’s Carte du Canal Royal de la Province de Languedoc (1771–1774) was divided in sections for which the engraver Nicolas Chalmandrier (active 1756–1782) provided elegant frames and titles decorated with putti, ribbons, garlands and cornucopia. 

In contrast with successes like the Canal de Languedoc, the maps associated with projects like the so-called Canal Crozat evince the difficulties and challenges involved in canal-building. François Bailleul’s Carte Particulière du Projet du Canal de Jonction des Rivières de Somme et d’Oise (Maps K.Top.56.74.) corresponds to an early stage in the construction of this canal, which would later become the Canal de Saint-Quentin. The map, produced shortly before works were temporarily abandoned due to their excessive cost, shows the ambition of the original project, which would not be completed until 1810 under Napoleon’s orders.

Beautifully rendered in the maps and views produced by the supremely skilled French engravers, French canals soon became an attraction for curious travellers and a reference for canal-builders everywhere in Europe. It has been suggested that visiting the Canal de Languedoc in 1753 as part of his Grand Tour got the Duke of Bridgewater interested in canals. But the maps of British canals kept in George III’s collection show that building canals in Britain was a completely different type of enterprise. The construction of British canals relied on the pooling of resources from local landowners and industrialists, rather than on the King and his engineers. As the pamphlet entitled An explanation of the Plan of the Canal from Leeds to Liverpool (1788) (Maps K.Top.6.34.1, 2.) states, ‘It is almost the peculiar felicity of this kingdom, that it has produced associations of private subjects, that have the courage and ability to undertake and execute those stupendous works, which have been deservedly exhibited as the boast and pride of the public in other kingdoms'.

A large number of maps in the collection show projects overseen by ‘the man who gave shape to the English canal network’, the engineer James Brindley (1716–1772).7 Brindley was famously involved in the construction of the canal that linked the Duke of Bridgewater’s coal mines at Worsley and Manchester. The ‘curious wharf house’ at Castlefield Junction represented in a manuscript map in the collection (Maps K.Top.18.81.f.) marked the spot where the Bridgewater canal linked into the River Medlock near its terminus in Manchester. The Barton Aqueduct, also designed by Brindley and built as part of the Bridgewater Canal, is depicted by William Orme in an aquatint dated 1793 (Maps K.Top.18.89.).

South West View of Lancaster Castle

A South West view of Lancaster Castle after Robert Freebairn

John Rennie's Lune Aqueduct can be seen at left in this view after Robert Freebairn

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On paper at least, the new aqueducts blended in the landscape with the same easiness as medieval castles, shepherds and their flocks, as can be seen in the South West View of Lancaster Castle by John Bluck after a drawing by Robert Freebairn (Maps K.Top.18.70.a.2.). Similarly, the courses of English canals usually appear as undulating and meandering to follow the lines of the terrain, instead of breaking them in the dramatic fashion that characterised the maps of French canals, as can be seen in the Plan of the intended Navigable Canal from the Coventry Canal near the City of Coventry to the City of Oxford (Maps K.Top.6.37.).

Plan of the intended navigable canal from the Coventry Canal near Coventry to Oxford

A Plan of the intended navigable Canal from the Coventry Canal near Coventry to Oxford, surveyed in 1768

The Oxford Canal, opened in sections between 1774 and 1790, was built to bring coal from the Coventry coal mines to Oxford and the River Thames

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These maps documented the courses and engineering features of English canals while celebrating the prosperity that they intended to bring to local communities. Thus the title of the Plan of the River Tees and of the intended navigable canal from Stockton by Darlington to Winston (Maps K.Top.6.31.) is surrounded by bales, pallets, sieves, barrels, picks, shovels and piles of coal, while a horseman pulls a barge down the canal in the rolling landscape in the background. Similar motifs appear in the maps of the Basingstoke canal and of Birmingham main line canal: pallets, barrels and bales are laid next to a skinful; textiles and beehives next to the title of the Plan of the River Loddon, and intended navigable canal from Basingstoke in the County of Southampton to the River Thames, near Monkey Island (Maps K.Top.6.57.), and the proprietor of a mill watches approvingly while a horse pulls a barge down a canal in the Plan of the intended navigation from Birmingham, in the Country of Warwick, to the Canal at Aldersley near Wolverhampton in the County of Stafford (Maps K.Top.6.39.).

Plan of the River Tees and of the intended navigable canal from Stockton by Darlington to Winston

A Plan of the River Tees, and of the intended navigable Canal from Stockton by Darlington to Winston, in the Bishoprick of Durham, surveyed by Robert Whitworth, 1768.

This map was commissioned by the leading coal merchants of Darlington, who wished to have a canal built from the Auckland coalfield to the navigable River Tees at Stockton

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George III’s collection abounds in views of neat and industrious Dutch and German towns that show the prosperity of countries with a long tradition of canal-building. Among their maps, the Karte der Rhein Gegenden von Kayserswerth bis Arnheim aus den besten Karten (Maps K.Top.88.38.) includes details of the Pannerden Canal in the Dutch province of Gelderland, which improved navigation along the Rhine in the 1700s. The Eiderkanal (1777–1784) that made the river Eider navigable above Rendsburg and connected the North and Baltic seas is represented (with details of one of its sluices) in the map entitled Grundriss des Canals nebst dessen Vereinigung mit den Bassin bey Rendsburg (Maps K.Top.101.32.). In this area, as in the Netherlands, canals were associated not only with the promotion of trade, but also with land reclamation. Hydraulic engineering appears in these works as an attempt at managing, rather than controlling, nature. The precariousness of such attempt is evinced in another distinct section within the Dutch views and maps of the collection, this time devoted to the subject of floods.

View of the Flood at Bemmel, 21 February, 1799

View of the flood at Bemmel on 21 February, 1799

Bemmel was inundated after the banks of a local levee burst in 1799

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In an aquatint published in 1801, Christian Josi draws upon the imagery of the sublime to depict the consequences of the rupture of a dyke in Bemmel, near the Pannerden Canal mentioned above (Maps K.Top.108.65.). The biblical overtones of the scene suggest a sober reappraisal of man’s ingenuity, which results in abandoning the idea of an unqualified triumph over nature to settle for negotiation and compromise.

1: Peter Barber, 'Royal Geography: The Development and Destiny of King George III’s Geographical Collections' (unpublished, British Library), p. 35. 

2: Allan Braham and Hellmut Hager, Carlo Fontana: the drawings at Windsor Castle (London: Zwemmer, 1977), pp.109–10. 

3: Christoph H. Heilmann, 'Acqua Paola and the Urban Planning of Paul V Borghese', The Burlington Magazine, 112, no. 811 (1970), pp.656–63. 

4: David Watkin,The Architect King: George III and the Culture of the Enlightenment (London: Royal Collection Publications, 2004), p. 33.

5: Michael S. Mahoney, 'Organizing Expertise: Engineering and Public Works under Jean-Baptiste Colbert, 1662–83', Osiris, 25, no. 1 (2010), pp.149–70.

6: Chandra Mukerji, 'The New Rome: Infrastructure and National Identity on the Canal Du Midi', Osiris, 24, no. 1 (2009), pp.15–32.

7: K. R. Fairclough, ‘Brindley, James (1716–1772)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online edn, Sept 2013, (accessed August 16, 2016).

Mercedes Ceron picture
  • Mercedes Cerón
  • Mercedes Cerón studied at the University of Salamanca (BA) and University College London (MA and PhD). She has worked at the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Ashmolean Museum. Between 2011 and 2013, she worked on Francis Douce’s collection of prints as Junior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford. She is currently working on George III's Topographical Collection at the British Library.