Transforming Topography

Stephen Daniels explores developments in topographical study in the fields of art history and geography, incorporating his recent research on the topographer and antiquary John Britton.

Topography as a contemporary form of knowledge, a field of enquiry, is enjoying something of a revival, in widely varied domains. So its use as a form of scientific representation, is now extending from geo science to neuro science, from surveying landforms, to the terrain of the brain. In a niche field of philosophical enquiry, topography is being used to configure a wider interest in matters of space, region and place, with an emphasis on surface relations not deep structures. And in photographic practice, the New Topographics movements of the 1970s, is itself being renovated, to portray expansive, ordinary looking landscapes, with abject, sometimes ruinous, traces of human habitation.

In all such fields topography is a relational, sometimes contrapuntal term, in dialogue with modern concepts like topology, or older ones like geneaology, and in territorial terms with picturesque or monumental forms of landscape. Some of the new topography, including digital and remotely sensed imagery, revisits the classical triad of topography, chorography, geography – not just as a scale issue of local, regional, global, but in terms of different modes of knowledge and registers of representation. So topography is other than a local landscape simply seen, but now a way of knowing that encompasses movement, narrative, systems of memory, plans, projects and designs, that may have both a low visual threshold, or none at all, or be hyper visual, with a degree of observed or imagined information that can be scarcely be contained.

Much of the new topography has an affiliation with mapping, not just the metaphorical “mapping” which has become a literary term, but the model of practical mapping, sometimes a cultural memory of older, more hands on forms of the practice than current GIS technology. So the New Topographics looked back a century to the federal photographic survey of the US, and Jeff Malpas’s Philosophical Topography is modelled on OS style field surveying with theodolites, and the surveyor’s 'bodily engagement with landscape'.

View near Loch Rannoch

igures surveying the eastern end of Loch Rannoch as part of the Military Survey of northern Britain; one figure using a circumfrentor; another holding a flag; trees throughout the scene; hills in the distance.

Paul Sandby's portrait of the Scottish Military Survey at work 

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So ‘topography’ has a historical habit of being taken up as a keyword, to denote meaningful matters, in part because it is so often disowned and downgraded, and available for renovation, sometimes in a way to expand and reform a field, and its genres.

Topography might be transforming

Richard Gough’s British Topography of 1780 was intended to modernise antiquarian enquiry, as part of a long forward march of reformation, pioneered by Camden. He describes maps, including ancient maps, and views, notably those by Paul Sandby, as the topographer’s way of enlightening and improving 'the wilderness of obscurity' of antiquarianism – 'incorrect pedigrees, futile etymologies, verbose disquisitions, crowds of epitaphs, lists of landowners, and such farrago, thrown together without method, unanimated by reflections… by men 'fit only to pore over musty records, and grovel among ruined walls, shut up in closets from the commerce of life, and secluded from information even in their own way'. True topographers thus not only got out more, but also had a keen visual, cartographic and pictorial sensibility, or technology, to reframe and re-engineer their world, and also it seems to help them convert collections and compilations of material, mounting up in musty libraries, into coherent, publishable works, and transform their authors from myopic parochial gentlemen into wide eyed patriotic citizens, the local going national.

Topography might also perform a rear-guard action

The Topographer is the title of a periodical first issued in the now of 1789, co-edited by the Staffordshire cleric Stebbing Shaw and a Kentish squire Samuel Egerton Brydges, a fervent genealogist who believed he had a firm claim to the throne and who was exposed for forging documents of entitlement to the Chandos peerage. While avoiding 'weighty discussions' on the scope of topography as a form of knowledge, it emphasised the 'distinctness and precision' it brought to the 'knowledge of general events' and was closely related to biography, if it gave more attention to the uncelebrated lives of 'men eminent for their descent' who 'yet have never been raised to the honor of nobility'. For 'at this time… every year produces an inundation of new men, that over-run almost every county in the Kingdom, destroy the venerable mansions of antiquity'. The Topographer was to 'preserve the memory of those persons and those houses'.

The range of sites in the periodical was quite broad, and while illustration was meagre, it varied, from Saxon seals to medieval churches, if all seem to be estate properties. In lieu of much actual illustration, The Topographer followed Gough’s practice of referencing pictures, in this case to re-catalogue the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy for pictures “illustrative of British Topography”. This started with the current 1789 exhibition, 71 exhibits, selected it seems largely because their titles were of named places, and then went back to the beginning to the first exhibition of 1769, reaching 1778 before the periodical closed in 1791. Intended to show the progress of British art, as the total of all exhibits rose from 136 to 619, a numerate reader would have realised that the proportional totals of topographical pictures fell, from 20 to 11 per cent of the total – if some generic titles also showed recognizably named places. The effect is for the work of an older generation, dominated by Sandby, Barret and Tompkins, to be revisited, a 1770s revival for the end of the century.

Reforming topography

Drawings of the London and Birmingham Railway in the 1830s

1830s drawings of the London and Birmingham Railway [page: plate 6]

Railway-building spread rapidly, this image from the 1830s showing how much of it was dependent on manual labour, and how much disruption to the urban landscape was caused.

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At the beginning of the new century, John Britton sought to reform topography and built a long and varied career in doing so, in illustrated works, paying particular attention to high quality drawing and engraving. Britton envisaged a reformed genre of topography as a liberal project, part of the 19th century’s ‘march of progress’, powered by ‘steam, gas, the electric telegraph, penny postage, railroads‘ produced for an ‘enlarged and enlightened’ public. As well as antiquities it encompassed modernities, railways, piped gas and water, new theatres, as well as castles, cathedrals and stone circles. Britton addressed the issue of the degree to which topographical conventions could encompass a fast moving world, particularly the dynamic transformations of London, which were, he said, as changeful as the weather. This should make us consider the movement for urban meteorology, including Constable’s skies, as part of the expanded field of topography. Prompted by its low literary and artistic reputation, famously its dismissal as ‘map-work’ by Henry Fuseli, in his Lectures on Painting to the Royal Academy, Britton sought to raise the cultural significance of topography and broaden its popular appeal.

As well as being a collaborative enterprise, topography was for Britton a form of social advancement, for a man who started adult life as an apprentice cellarman in Clerkenwell, and made a precarious career in showbusiness and journalism, but who half believed family stories of lost inheritance, as a wealthy Bristol merchant and landowner, with Caribbean possessions (if he was a strongly liberal abolitionist). It was also for his friend and co-author E.W. Brayley. As Britton continued on the stage, so Brayley continued to work for enamellist Henry Bone in firing plates in a special furnace, reckoned to give him a particular expertise in scientific and technological features of the places he described, like geology and industry, and a skill in manipulation which he employed to take 'casts of sculptured monuments, impressions of inscriptions, rubbings of engraved monumental brasses etc'.

A cromlech on Marlbro’ Downs

James Storer (1771-1853) after John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), A Cromlech on Marlbro’ Downs, published London, 1829, as title page for John Britton (1771–1857), The Beauties of Wiltshire

A watercolour by John Sell Cotman depicting the Devil’s Den cromlech was engraved for the title plate of Britton's Beauties of Wiltshire

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Britton’s Clerkenwell friends, like Charles Dibdin and William Pugh, called Britton a ‘Topographist’, and this stagey name clings to the author in the preface of his first topographical work on his native Wiltshire in 1801, where he summarises the talents of ‘The Topographer’ in 300 words, the style of a melodramatic recitation.

The TOPOGRAPHER, above all others, should be possessed of undeviating perseverance; for the complete attainment of his object, the perfection of his labours, is dependant as much on patient investigation, as on the more volatile effusions of the most animated genius. His intellects should be unclouded, his acquirements universal. He should possess a knowledge of the languages, be familiar with the sciences; and acquainted, intimately, with history, agriculture, mineralogy, biography, and the belles lettres. His mind should be enlarged by commerce with the various branches of society, and his judgment endowed with those comprehensive powers which result from the study and comparison of the opinions of every age and of every nation. He should have a taste for the polite arts, and particularly for drawing, which induces new ideas, and quickens the perceptive faculties almost to the creation of a new sense. In short, every exercise by which the moral and physical capabilities of man are invigorated, should be familiar to him. Wisdom and knowledge, and understanding, should be the heralds in his way, and the companions of his lucubrations; and his capacity should be enlightened enough to seize the remote relations of things, and combine them according to times, situations and circumstances. Possessing these attainments, he should commence his researches with the examination of every promulgated authority. He should investigate deeds, however ancient, and unroll and peruse charters, however worm eaten. He should compare evidence, where accounts clash, and believe no assertions without demonstrative argument. He should trace the relations of history to the theatres wherein the events were transacted; and compare the records of past ages with existing memorials.

'Where is such a man to be found?' asked The Anti Jacobin Review, 'we do not think he will make his appearance before the French doctrine of human perfectibility and perfection shall be fully realized'.

The monarch’s name and title was enlisted to reshape the term ‘topography’, as an accessible even popular form of public knowledge. The memorial volume, Georgiana, published in 1820, has a series of anecdotal vignettes, which show this – of a king out and about with his people, despite his poor eyesight, in the streets, fields and ports, once dispensing advice on estate surveying, but also inside, at home with his family. 'Topography is one of his favourite studies' runs one report quoted from the 1770s, 'he copies every capital chart, takes models of all the celebrated fortifications, knows the soundings of the chief harbours of Europe, and the strong and weal sides of most of the fortified towns. He can name every ship in his navy, and its commander' (in the process appropriating state documents for his private library). In contrast, we are told, 'The King was not a great reader. Indeed he scarcely ever took up a book. But he had particular skill in obtaining information, and employed persons of ability to read books, and convey to him their substance'.

A wide field

It’s clear that there are shifting views of topography, and its cognates topographical and topographer, even when the Kings Topographical Collection was assembled, catalogued and transferred to the British Library. We might as it were take a ‘topographical’ view of K.Top, of its particular places and times.

In her landmark catalogue essay for the Sandby catalogue, Felicity Myrone maintained that that we should not see topographical imagery as merely a prelude, or proto-history, to a progressive narrative of landscape art. And neither should we reverse the narrative as it were, and see topography, however positively, merely through the lens of landscape. When early 19th century writers looked for canonical works in topography, the visual field they found was wide, including portraiture, interiors, monuments of various kinds, particularly tombs, coins, seals and pedigrees, and they often imitated this, in newly published works, and also customised, grangerised versions of classic texts, notably of Pennant.

Topography addressed the relation of people and place in manifold textual as well as visual ways. Despite the reforming efforts to reach beyond the lands and lives of the aristocracy and the church, and to address recent developments and works in progress, such as railways and industrial cities, many 19th century topographical works remained strongly focussed on noble celebrities and the ancient properties, indeed it became part of the modernisation and popularisaiton of the genre, as it is to this day, in part because of the reform of those very institutions, as well as a recognition that they actually controlled much modern development. So in the 1840s the parish as a locale of topography - recently regarded by reformers as a place of neglect, where church records were as uncared for as the poor parishioners whose bodies were wrapped in their old paper for burials -- the parish enjoyed a resurgence with Anglican reforms, and a new, more curatorial cadre of local clerics. No less than modern tithe maps, designed to rationalise Anglican privileges in monetary terms, the preservation and transcription of parish records was a part of a reformist public programme, and old works on parochial topography, like Gilbert White’s Selborne, republished in cheap popular editions. At this time John Britton, now a more ecclesiastical man, both narrowed the term ‘topography’ from a British to an English practice, and saw it as one that was taken overseas, to overrule local or native expertise in knowing their place. Topography was both mapped onto geography and part of the nation’s imperial mission.

  • Stephen Daniels
  • Stephen Daniels is Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Nottingham.