View of the back of Whitehall with figures sitting in the foreground; ruins in the middle ground; a horse and cart on the right. Paper bears a Whatman watermark.

Putting topography in its place

Felicity Myrone explores how the ‘placing’ of topography and the collections’ perceived status and current accessibility at the British Library is the result of complex and often unintentional sequences of events.

Historically, the prints and drawings collections have been divided up between the British Museum and the British Library according to whether the images were perceived as autonomous ‘art’ or formed supporting ‘evidence’ for primarily text-based research. But these divisions have hazy origins and have never been clear cut. This article explores the institutional history of topographical prints and drawings across the British Museum and British Library and what this reveals about traditional prejudices about the genre of topography.[1]

The history of the prints and drawings collections at the British Library and Museum

What we now know as the British Library was originally part of the British Museum, although what is now the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Museum originated in the British Library’s departments of Printed Books and Manuscripts, formed as a means of securing loose items deemed at risk of theft.

Like other historical collections of works on paper, the British Museum’s print room holds mainly loose, individually valuable items, collected and arranged by maker and subject. Until very recently, the primary focus of the curators and cataloguers was on ‘known’ and revered makers, and on covering well-established artistic genres such as portraiture and caricature. In this context, pictures of places were generally classed among British ‘landscape watercolours’; ‘topography’ as such has been actively avoided as more properly the realm of the local collection and British Library.

While the effect may not have been intentional, art historians have come to revere single sheet items over illustrations in books, although they may be identical, and through the accessibility and renown of the British Museum’s prints and drawings, we have come to expect ‘fine art’ to be housed at the British Museum, and certain genres to be well represented at the British Library – more ‘evidence’ based works relating to themes such as exploration and topography.

City Scenes; or A Peep Into London

City Scenes; or A Peep Into London [page: title page]

City Scenes; or A Peep into London (1809) is effectively an armchair travel book for children, consisting of engravings and descriptive passages of particular aspects of London.

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Topography at the British Library

The Library’s collections of topography are not easy to categorise or even locate. They have been variously donated, purchased, or acquired by official means. The materials they encompass are highly various in their techniques and media. They cover a wide range of material, printed and manuscript, written and image-based, including maps and views, drawings, prints, and oil paintings and photography. The collections have largely been compiled and stored by their geographical subject-matter, that is according to the place or places that are represented. The vast majority have never had their contents individually itemised by the Library so that there has never been any systematic attempt to research the separate images, making artistic attributions, tracing provenance or original publishing contexts in the case of prints or print studies. The collections are found scattered across the Library’s different departments and are extensive, including thousands of individual collections, ranging from the personal, such as the extensive collections of antiquarians’ archives of unpublished notes towards various county histories held by the Department of Manuscripts, to the official, such as those of the Royal United Services Institution.

Telescopic View of London and the Thames

Telescopic View of London and the Thames [page: 0]

Telescopic views like this were produced by many publishers in the mid-19th century, celebrating the progress and ingenuity of the Victorian world both with their content and their form.

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The Library came to be the national collection of topographical materials in the early 19th century through prominent acquisitions such as King’s Topographical Collection, and a gradual grouping of the topographic collections as the natural realm of the Library’s departments rather than the Print Room. The 'K.Top' collection was placed in Printed Books, with the bulk then transferred to the newly formed Maps department and some manuscript material to Manuscripts.[2] By the mid-19th century there was sufficient content to warrant the publication of the Catalogue of Manuscript Maps, Charts, and Topographical Drawings, 1844-61.This covered individually extensive collections, such as the Cotton manuscripts, and those bequeathed by Hans Sloane in 1753 and William Burrell in 1796, and aimed to create a catalogue covering every work ‘of a topographical nature’ in the Department of Manuscripts, King's Library and the Print Room. The preface to volume three (1861), by the Keeper of Manuscripts, Frederic Madden, emphasises their extent: It may give some idea of the extent and value of the volumes now completed, as also of the amount of labour bestowed on them, to state that they embrace descriptions of upwards of twenty-two thousand articles'.

Madden explains that the original intention had been to cover all topographical holdings as at 1841 and all acquisitions due to be completed until 1850, while the work was at press. This had proven overly ambitious, due to the quantity of manuscript maps and topographical drawings acquired by the whole Museum between 1841 and 1850: 'after considerable progress had been made, it was found that the extent was such, as would not only cause a further delay in the publication of the third volume, but also render it inconveniently large'. Thus additions prior to 1841 are included, but The remainder, reserved for the Supplement, when united to the accessions of a similar character acquired since 1850, will form at least one more volume, should the Trustees think proper to continue the publication' [my italics]. The Trustees did not.

Mont Orgueil

A watercolour view of Mont Orgueil by Thomas Phillips.

One of several extremely accomplished views of Jersey and Guernsey by the military engineer Thomas Phillips.

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Why was this? The category of topography had taken on negative associations, possibly under the influence of Henry Fuseli, who, expressing a commonly-held belief, claimed in his fourth Royal Academy lecture on ‘Invention’ (published 1810) that many landscapes were no more than a 'tame delineation of a given spot; an enumeration of hill and dale, clumps of trees, shrubs, water, meadows, cottages and houses' and that this amounted to 'little more than topography… [a] kind of map-work’.[3] Art historians had been quick to expand this definition of topography as distinct from and inferior to landscape art.[4] The K.Top and the 1844-61 catalogues reflected the influence of this opinion and may have ultimately sealed the fate of topography as being ‘library’ material, their geographical arrangement emphasising the views’ potential use as a resource, as pictorial evidence rather than art. Compiling the drawings catalogue may also have inspired Frederic Madden’s ultimately successful bid for transfers in 1845 of brass-rubbings and works concerned with ‘topographical research, and very little or not at all with Art’.[5]

A drawn view of the back of Whitehall

View of the back of Whitehall with figures sitting in the foreground; ruins in the middle ground; a horse and cart on the right. Paper bears a Whatman watermark.

James Miller's view of the back of Whitehall from the King's Topographical Collection.

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Transfers of material between the different departments of Prints and Drawings, Printed Books, Manuscripts and then Maps have given this art-theoretical, now disputed, distinction between ‘mere’ topography and ‘landscape’ or ‘evidence’ and ‘art’ real force in the organisation of our national collections of prints and drawings. Such divisions were often based on mundane and arbitrary reasons such as the particular interests of curators, how well they got along and how much they were prepared to do exchanges, how much space was available in the respective departments, how visible and easy to remove particular items were, or the preparation for an exhibition or catalogue. A set of large easily removed drawings (found in a portfolio rather than bound into the album sequence) was removed from the King’s Topographical Collection in 1952, for example, in preparation for the Prints and Drawings exhibition ‘Canaletto and the English draughtsmen’, due to open the following year. As Antony Griffiths has written, curators 'extracted the material in these collections from its original context in order to serve their current concerns; the needs of taxonomy and research always overrode issues of provenance and history'.[6] Sometimes they were the result of little more than strong personalities (or feuds such as the well-known and long running disputes between mid-19th century curators Sir Frederic Madden and Sir Anthony Panizzi), sometimes there seems to have been an effort to group all works of one genre (particularly with maps).

Topographical drawings were now given entries in the catalogues of Additional Manuscripts, generally collective records or records which prioritise the location of the view depicted. The overwhelming size of the collections in the Library may have contributed to their being perceived of as no longer seen as worthy of study at item level. As a point of comparison, the art collection at the Museum of Ornamental Art (the future V&A) was being established at this point as the ‘National Gallery of British Art’ and national collection of watercolours. Their much smaller collection of works of art (although often by the same artists as those in the future British Library’s topographic collections) were catalogued individually and celebrated as British landscape painting, worthy of scholarship and emulation, and displayed in exhibitions touring the nation.

Caesar's Tower near Martinach

A pastoral landscape with a tower in the background

John Robert Cozens depicts the Castle of La Batiaz, near Martigny, Switzerland on 31 August, 1776. 

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John P Anderson, who worked as a librarian in the department of Printed Books, compiled The Book of British Topography in 1881. This bibliography of topographical printed books relating to Great Britain and Ireland opens with a preface stating 'the urgent need of a work of this character has long been felt, not only by the frequenters of the Reading Room of the British Museum [now British Library], but, judging from the numerous letters received from all parts of the country, by those who, living at a distance, wish to learn what books the Museum contains relating to the places in which they are personally interested'. It covers 14,000 publications, arranged by place. Topography in this Printed Books, library, context, is presented as a popular tool for researching places 'associated with historical events, with famous men, or with [one’s] own immediate ancestry'.[7] The brief entries do not cover illustrations, and the multitude of prints the books contain remain hidden.

Carew Castle, Pembrokeshire

Illustration of a castle with people standing outside it

Replication was part of topographical art and publishing: an example of an image by Paul Sandby being reused in different contexts is Carew Castle, Pembrokeshire.

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By the 20th century, ‘topography’ and the British Library’s unrivalled collections were summarised as amateur, although potentially useful to historians. Julius P Gilson’s A Student’s Guide to the Manuscripts of the British Museum, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920, notes that ‘Probably there is no class of literary work on which so much amateur labour has been spent as topographical history. Little original work of this kid has been remunerative. Second and third hand complications, based on the work of others, have doubtless paid their way, but in the main the investigation has been a labour of love…The old system, however, has left us immense stores of unpublished work, amateurish, no doubt, most of them, in quality, but the fruit of untiring industry. There still occupation for some generations to make use of such collections as those of the Randle Holmes for Cheshire, Baker and Cole for Cambridge, Elisha Davy for Cambridge, Streatfeild for Kent and Eyton for Shropshire'.

Topography at the British Library was now classified as a lowly form of evidence of little aesthetic value or interest in a printed books or manuscripts context, and less interesting (or accurate) than a map. The latter were prioritised, with regular maps catalogues printed and their contents transferred over time to our main Explore catalogue online. There the few views which they also contain are now found categorised as maps. The term used to refer to prints and drawings in bibliographic cataloguing, ‘visual materials’, has only been in use on the main catalogue in the Library since 2007, and therefore the works catalogued as such represent a tiny fraction of our holdings.

Map librarian Tony Campbell revisited the cataloguing of manuscript maps in the early 1990s, providing an index to already existing catalogues.[8] While the rich if disparate listing of maps from the 19th century made this possible, he noted that there was plenty more to find, for 'only a tiny percentage of the 300,000 or so volumes in the Department of Manuscripts was actually examined as part of this exercise. Many maps must lie slumbering; others have been inadequately described. Nothing alters the still largely unrecognised fact that the most likely place for a discovery is in a major library rather than an attic'.[9] The lack of interest in even listing topographical views from the mid-19th century has ensured that they have remained largely undisturbed and little known, but we hope Picturing Places now illustrates their potential.


[1] I do not cover prints and drawings from the Asia and Africa collections, predominantly the East India Office Collections, which have been comprehensively catalogued since the 1970s and are accessible in a dedicated print room at the British Library.

[2] Parts deemed to be of high artistic value, such as drawings for etchings after Canaletto, were removed to Prints and Drawings even in the 1950s, while the etchings themselves remain in the Library.

[3] Lecture IV, reproduced in Ralph Wornum, Lectures on Painting, (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848) p.445. 

[4] See Felicity Myrone 'The Monarch of the Plain': Paul Sandby and Topography’, in Paul Sandby (1731-1809): Picturing Britain, ed. by John Bonehill and Stephen Daniels (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2009), pp. 56-64 

[5] Transfers included works listed in the 1844-61 catalogue such as the Grimm drawings now at Add MS 15537-15548. BM/CA: Trustees Minutes, vol. xxi, c. 6684, 24 May 1845; P. R. Harris, A History of the British Museum Library, 1753-1973 (London: British Library, 1998), p. 153.

[6] Antony Griffiths, 'The Bagford Collection', Picturing Places, <>

[7] No pagination.

[8] His listing was a compilation of entries from the 1844-61 catalogue, the catalogues of printed maps, the Catalogues of Additions and the Amalgamated Index.

[9] Tony Campbell, 'Laying bare the secrets of the British Library’s map collections', The Map Collector, 62, Spring 1993, pp. 38-40.

Felicity Myrone
  • Felicity Myrone
  • Felicity Myrone is an art historian and curator with a particular interest in 17th-19th-century works on paper, their collecting histories, and the historical relationships between the image collections at the British Library and British Museum.

    She worked as a Curatorial Assistant at the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings before joining the British Library as Curator of Topography in 2006. In 2015 she became Lead Curator, Western Prints and Drawings, with sole responsibility for prints and drawings in the printed books, maps and manuscripts collections.

    She led an externally funded team cataloguing and digitising George III’s maps and views, the King’s Topographical Collection, and managed a related research project, Transforming Topography. One outcome of the latter is the British Library webspace, Picturing Places. Other projects include ongoing cataloguing of prints and drawings, and incorporation of Mark McDonald’s catalogue of Cassiano dal Pozzo’s print collection and the BL satires described by Stephens and George.

    She has hosted PhD placements on Charles I's Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, William Blake, the King's Maritime Collection and the King's Topographical Collection.  

    Her research on the history and scope of the collections has also involved hosting invited workshops in 2013 and 2015, and an international conference in 2016. She was awarded the Ian Willison Fellowship to the Rare Book School, University of Virginia in 2009, a Georgian Papers Fellowship in 2016, and most recently a Paul Mellon Centre Mid-Career Fellowship for 'Art in the Library', investigating how the fused and intertwined institutional histories of the British Museum, Natural History Museum and British Library have shaped attitudes to prints and drawings.

    She is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a Trustee of the Walpole Society.