klencke atlas folio 38

The Klencke Atlas

Tom Harper tells the story of the Klencke Atlas. One of the largest atlases in the world, it was presented to Charles II by the Dutch merchant and scholar Johannes Klencke in 1660.

Out of British Library’s ‘banquet of maps’ the Klencke atlas of 1660 is surely the main course.[1] It is also one of the cartographic collection’s best-known objects. Until 2012 it was the largest atlas in the world, and as a result has featured in an array of media including Radio Times magazine, The Guardian newspaper, the Guinness Book of Records and in BBC4’s The Beauty of Maps television documentary. The size, scale and concept of the Klencke atlas impresses today, just as it impressed the diarist John Evelyn in 1660 when he saw it in the King’s cabinet, describing as he did ‘a vast book of mapps in a volume of neare four yards large’.[2] Benefitting from the wide scholarship already available on the atlas, this article will provide a concise summary of its contents and history.[3]

The atlas is named after the man who led a consortium of Dutch sugar merchants in presenting it to Charles II on his restoration to the English throne in 1660. Johannes Klencke (1620?–1672), wished to impress the king and gain favourable trade agreements with Britain. And what better gift to give a king than a giant atlas, its binding bearing tooled symbols of the nations the king claimed as his dominions: England, Scotland, Ireland, and France. Klencke was made a baronet that same year, and the atlas was placed in Charles’s cabinet, amongst his most prized possessions. It was to stay in royal hands for over 150 years.

If the atlas bears the name of its presenter, its conception bears the mark of another: Count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679), one of the most enlightened patrons of art and science in Counter Reformation Europe.[4] Maurits had influence in the courts of Europe, and was responsible for presenting a a lightly smaller atlas – the Great Elector’s Atlas now in Berlin, to the Elector of Brandenburg in 1664. Another, the Rostock atlas of the same year, is almost certain to have had a similar provenance.[5] During his time as governor-general of the Dutch West India Company in Brazil (1636-1644), Maurits patronised a wealth of artistic and scientific endeavour. The resultant map of Brazil by Georg Marcgraf, published in 1647 by Joan Blaeu[6], provided a concise vision of the Dutch empire abroad, but also, significantly, of the source of the sugar which accounted for up to 70% of Europe’s consumption.[7] Its inclusion in the Klencke atlas is significant to the purpose of the gift, and illustrative of the guiding influence of Maurits.

Klencke Atlas

Map of Brazil in the Klencke Atlas

The Klencke Atlas is one of the world's biggest: it measures  176 x 231 cm when open.

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A composite atlas, the Klencke contains 41 copperplate wall maps constituting the greatest examples of Dutch cartography at the midpoint of the 17th century. All are extraordinarily rare, having benefited from the luxury of protective boards not usually extended to wall maps. Some are unique surviving examples. Their ordering follows the pattern of published atlases: The two large hemispheres published by Joan Blaeu in 1648, without the decorative surrounds, are followed by the same mapmaker’s 1659 wall maps of Europe, Asia, Africa, Southern Asia, North America and South America.[8] Each of these is accompanied by letterpress text in Dutch, Latin and French bearing the imprints of Henricus Hondius.

The regional maps reflect in part Charles’s (and Britain’s) spheres of interest. There are two maps of Britain, the unique surviving example of Hugo Allard’s map of the British Isles and Cornelis Danckerts’s Regni Angliae Tabulam of 1644. The former’s damaged state suggests that it was the most heavily used map in the atlas, the atlas perhaps being displayed open at this map. Significant coverage is given to the Netherlands, where Charles had spent much of his nine years of exile. Eight maps cover parts of the Low Countries, including the vast map of 1647 by Jacob Colom which is so large that it has been placed over three consecutive pages.

Other European maps include Blaeu’s map of Italy of 1614-17 and the map of Ukraine published by William Hondius in 1660, but the maps are not exclusively the work of Dutch publishers. A map of ancient France of 1627 by Melchior Tavernier is joined by maps by the French cartographers Nicolas Sanson and Jean Jubrien, in addition to those by the Dutchmen Nicolas Visscher, Jacob Colom, and Petrus Bertius. Maps of non-European parts of the world are fewer in number: the Marcgraf map of Brazil previously mentioned, Blaeu’s maps of China (1658) and the Holy land (c.1655), and Hugo Allard’s map of the East Indies. These are followed by Classical maps of Europe and Greece.

In 1828 the Klencke atlas passed to the British Museum as part of the geographical collections of George III. It has undergone considerable restoration, possibly on a number of separate occasions. The maps have all been trimmed close to their printed areas and laid on 19th century paper which has made it impossible to study their versos. The atlas was completely rebound in around 1961 in the British Museum bindery, but its original tooled boards were thankfully retained.[9] With the move of the British Library to its St. Pancras location in 1998, the atlas reached its current home, and is on permanent display (closed) in the lobby of the Maps Reading Room. It travelled on loan to Milan in 2001 for the Segni e Sogni della Terra exhibition, and was included in the British Library’s 2010 exhibition Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art. It has recently been fully catalogued and photographed as part of the British Library’s King’s Topographical Collection cataloguing and digitisation project, thanks to the generous support of Daniel Crouch Rare Books. The new catalogue records are available to view here, and a time-lapse video of the digitisation can be viewed here

The Klencke atlas is important both in itself, and for its constituent parts. As an object, its scale and conception recalled Renaissance ideas relating to the symbolic power of a book which contained the entire world’s knowledge.[10] It would have provided Charles with intellectual authority, an authority which enforces its intimidating presence even today.


[1] Helen Wallis, ‘A Banquet of Maps’, Map Collector, 28 (1984), pp. 2-10.

[2] Guy de la Bédoyère (ed.), The Diary of John Evelyn (London, 1994).

[3] An unpublished listing of the atlas was produced by Bert van t’Hoff in 1957. Provisional description of the maps in the Klencke atlas in the British Museum. Original typescript at BL Maps C.21.c.17. A deal of research has been conducted on individual maps, particularly by Professor Günter Schilder in The Monumenta cartogrpahia Neerlandica series. Those of the world and Britain in Rodney Shirley, Printed maps of the British Isles, 1650-1750 (London: The British Library / Tring: Map Collector Publications, 1988).

[4] Peter Barber and Tom Harper, Magnificent maps: power, propaganda and art (London: The British Library, 2010), p. 92.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Peter J. Whitehead and M. Boeseman, A portrait of Dutch 17th century Brazil: animals, plants and people by the artists of Johan Maurits of Nassau (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1989); Barber and Harper, ibid.

[7] Wallis, ‘A Banquet of Maps’, p. 2.

[8] Rodney W. Shirley, The mapping of the world: early printed world maps, 1472-1700 (Riverside, Ct.: Early World Press, 1993), pp. 392-6.

[9] Wallace Pointer, ‘Rebinding the Klencke atlas’ in British Museum Quarterly, xxiv, number 3-4 (December 1961), pp. 115-17.

[10] Such as the Italian theorist Alessandro Citolino, referenced in Barber and Harper, Magnificent maps, p. 92.

Tom Harper
  • Tom Harper
  • Tom is a lead curator of antiquarian mapping at the British Library. He co-curated (with Peter Barber) the 2010 exhibition ‘Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art’, and (with Philip Hatfield) ‘Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage’ in 2014-15. He also curated the 2016-2017 exhibition on ‘Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line’. 

    Blog: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/magnificentmaps/index.html
    Twitter: @BLMaps