[THE DISTRIBUTION OF HIS MAJESTY'S MAUNDY, BY THE SUB-ALMONER in the Chapel Royal, at WHITEHALL] / S.H. Grimm ad nat del.

What is K.Top?

George III's extensive collection of maps and views is known as the King's Topographical Collection or 'K.Top' for short. Felicity Myrone explores the history and extent of this rich collection, encompassing up to 40,000 items.

George III’s extensive collection of maps and views has come to be known as the ‘King’s Topographical Collection’, or ‘K.Top’ since joining the collections at the British Museum. It has been described as ‘the finest geographical collection of its day’.[1] A wide variety of material is incorporated, including globes; manuscript and printed atlases; architectural drawings and garden plans; maps and records of military campaigns, fortifications, barracks, bridges and canals; records of town and country houses, civic and collegiate buildings; drawn and printed records of antiquities including stained glass, sculpture, tombs, mosaic pavements and brasses; and thousands of drawn and printed views. The collection includes the work of familiar names from Hollar to Hawksmoor, alongside the work of a host of lesser-known artists and amateurs and much anonymous or unidentified material. The assemblage of around 30-40,000 images can seem overwhelming and confusing, but should be seen in the context of the King’s Library, which was, according to George III’s librarian Frederic Augustus Barnard, 'collected upon such a comprehensive and liberal design of embracing every species of knowledge, that the Possessor of it can call to his aid, upon any subject, all the Learning and Wisdom which the mind of man has hitherto communicated to the world'.[2]

The distribution of His Majesty's Maundy, by the Sub-Almoner in the Chapel Royal and Anti-Chapel

[THE DISTRIBUTION OF HIS MAJESTY'S MAUNDY, BY THE SUB-ALMONER in the Chapel Royal, at WHITEHALL] / S.H. Grimm ad nat del.

Samuel Hieronymous Grimm's depiction of the Chapel Royal with George III and Charlotte watching from the royal box as the poor line up to receive charity.

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K.Top was acquired by George III like his other collections through a process of inheritance, purchase and official presentation. Items are traceable to George III’s predecessors, and it is now evident that they include prints and drawings as well as the number of maps in K.Top which have previously been traced to this earlier date.[3] Others were evidently collected for him, particularly through Richard Dalton, the King’s Librarian 1760-1773 and Keeper of Medals and Drawings 1773-1791, and Frederic Barnard, Librarian from 1774. There were several high-profile purchases, such as in 1762 the library that had been put together by Canaletto’s patron, British Consul in Venice, Joseph Smith for £10,000, and parts of the collection of Cardinal Alessandro Albani, nephew of Pope Clement XI which collection included prints and drawings assembled by Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657) and important material from the Vatican archives including numerous manuscript plans and proposals by leading architects such as Carlo Fontana (1638-714) for the embellishment  of the Vatican and  palaces such as the Palazzo Rucellai al Corso. A handful of individual items have been traced recently in historical sales catalogues. While full ownership histories have not been established for the majority of works, some are evidently dedicated or presented to the king.[4]

An internal view of the Tintern Abbey

Figures holding torches inside the ruins of an abbey; ivy and foliage growning on the architecture; moonlight breaking through cloud and shining on the scene. Inscribed 'P.V.L.' in brown ink in the lower left-hand corner. Title inscribed in pencil on verso.

Tintern Abbey, a ruined Cistercian monastery in Monmouthshire, is depicted in moonlight in this watercolour by Peter Van Lerberghe.

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Held by© British Library

George III is known to have received instruction in geography and his own topographical views and architectural drawings survive in the Royal Collection. His interest in or use of maps was well known enough to be the source of satire in his day.[5] A contemporary observed in about 1770 that 'topography is one of the king’s favourite studies: he copies every capital chart, takes models of all celebrated fortifications, knows the soundings of the chief harbours in Europe and the strong and weak side of most of the fortified towns in Europe'.[6] Certainly, the collection contains items which seem likely to have been acquired by him personally, sometimes in connection with private concerns. Examples would include as a road book for the route from his home at Windsor to his holiday destination Weymouth on the South coast of England, and plans and elevations of the bathing machine used by him once there, or illustrated instructions for his visit to the home of a distinguished retired general in Kent. However, perhaps we need to question of how ‘personal’ a monarch’s collecting can have been? George III was not a private individual, in the sense that we would understand, and while it is undoubtedly appealing to imagine George III poring over the collection, driven by his personal passions and interests, does this impose a later and anachronistic idea of the collector onto him, in a potentially misleading way?

View of Guangzhou (Canton)

Bird's-eye view of Canton, with Chinese junks in Pearl River and harbour in the foreground, Western factories and New City beyond, and Old City within fortified walls and mountains in the background.

This bird’s-eye view of Guangzhou (Canton) is one of two large panoramic rolled views depicting the Chinese city in the King’s Topographical Collection. 

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The collection appears to have been listed and catalogued under the direction of the King’s Librarian, Frederic Barnard, prior to its donation to the nation by George IV in 1823. The resulting catalogue was published as the Catalogue of the Maps, Prints, Drawings, etc., forming the geographical and topographical collection attached to the Library of his late Majesty King George the third, etc., in 1829. This was a two-volume extension to Barnard’s five-volume catalogue of the King’s Library. The military and maritime collections appear to have been separated at this point.[7] According to John Martin’s Bibliographical Catalogue of Books Privately Printed, 1834 (reprinted 1884), it was Alexander MacPherson, a mapmaker, who compiled the catalogue of the King’s Topographical Collection, which is listed as anonymous in the British Library. Only a few copies were printed.

In this context, the ‘geographical’ of the catalogue’s title page seems to refer to maps, and ‘topographical’ to prints and drawings, for the majority of what would commonly be thought of as textual topography, such as county histories, are catalogued and stored as part of the main King’s Library, where they were categorised as history and geography. This may have been largely a format–driven distinction, reflecting the King’s Topographical Collection being predominantly single sheet items being rolled or held in specially designed cases. The two collections do overlap, with some compilations of maps and views stored in the King’s Library catalogued as belonging to both the King’s Library and King’s Topographical Collection and many examples of George III owning multiple copies of prints, in various compilations in both collections or with plates now in the ‘K.Top’ albums also remaining in the books they featured in in the King’s Library.

View of Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh

 Inscribed 'No61 ' in the upper left-hand corner of the mount. Horses and carts near trees in the foreground; fields in the middle ground; Edinburgh behind; Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat in the distance. Etched with title in the upper left-hand corner. Hand coloured by Robert Adam. Inscribed 'Shades touched by R. Adam' in black ink in the lower right-hand corner of the mount.

This is one of 72 etchings and drawings of Scotland by John Clerk of Eldin bound into a volume which was given to George III by David Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan in 1786.

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The 1823 parliamentary Select Committee report on the royal donation refers to a 'very extensive collection of Geography and Topography, a great part of which is … kept in cases; but a considerable number of Maps, too large to be thus disposed of, are rolled, and arranged upon the shelves of long tables; correct catalogues have been made of this division of the collection under the following titles; viz. Geography and Topography five volumes (folio); Charts, one volume (folio)'.[8] The shelfmarks of the main case system are still in use today, and a few cases survive and are on display in the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, formerly the King’s Library. Former Keeper of Maps at the British Library, Peter Barber, noted that in 1824, when they were seen by one M. Duchesne, a visiting Frenchman, they were all labelled ‘General Atlas’. A similarly presented set was sold from the Duke of York’s library in 1827, described in the Sotheby’s sales catalogue as a collection of 5,500 maps and charts ‘in reference to Ancient and Modern Geography, contained in eighty-six Atlas Book-Boxes, 2 feet high by 16 inches wide, uniformly bound and lettered with the contents'.[9]

Prospect of Roslin Castle and Chapel

The ruins and buildings of Roslin Castle in the foreground; a hill in the middle ground; Roslin Chapel in the distance; trees throughout the scene. Inscribed with title in black ink along upper edge. Signed and dated in black ink in the lower right-hand corner.

This drawing is one of a set of nine views, plans, elevations and interiors of Rosslyn Chapel in the King’s Topographical Collection by the French artist William Delacour. 

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The 1829 catalogue is an index broadly arranged by place and alphabetically, with entries for the world, countries, counties, cities, towns and particular buildings side by side. If extensive, materials are then subdivided into format and subject categories such as, for Rome, ‘General Plans’, ‘General Views’, ‘Particular Views’, ‘Collections of Views, Antiquities &c’, ‘Antiquities’, ‘Churches’, ‘Palaces’ and ‘Miscellaneous Views’. There are also subject entries which cut across the place arrangement, such as ‘Roads’, then subdivided by place. The catalogue was seemingly compiled by direct transcription from the object, so that for example 'I Farington' and 'Josh. Farington' are both cited as artists, although the references are clearly to one individual, the landscape painter Joseph Farington. Many views and maps remain anonymous, and others given very brief records such as ‘a view of St Pauls’. This leads to problems of attribution. There are also cases where literal transcription has led to the creation of multiple subject entries for the same place, separated from each other in both the catalogues and guard volumes.

The current arrangement of the collection is guardbooks or albums 'reconstructed' from 1953-60 to match the geographical case arrangement.[10] Formerly loose items are mounted by country, county and then alphabetically by town or place within that county, working from general maps to specific views of particular buildings or parts of them. About 40% of the collection is devoted to Great Britain, 10% to the Colonies (including the United States of America) and 30% to western Europe. London and its environs are represented in 10 volumes, Paris and Rome in five and four volumes respectively, and New York one. The final volume contains works which the cataloguers were unable to ‘place’ geographically. 

The collection has been given a shelfmark system which reflects its provenance and current situation – most items now begin ‘Maps K.Top’ followed by a number which reflects the collection having been transferred to the British Library’s Maps Library, the former case the item would have been held in or associated with, and its position within this case. Rolls or bound items were also given ‘dummy sheets’ in these cases, so that they essentially were used both as a storage system for loose material and as a giant card index arranged by place. Other shelfmarks include ‘Tab’ meaning they were stored in table cases. 

George IV’s role and motives in the formation and donation of the King’s Topographical Collections and King’s Library deserve more attention. His father’s draft will in the Royal Archives suggests that while he was actively collecting he intended to bequeath 'books, Papers & Collections of Drawings and Models' to Prince Frederick rather than to the nation.[11] George IV took over financial control of the Library as Prince Regent, and it is evident that he considered the running costs high.[12] By 1820 total acquisitions had cost  about £120,000 and annual costs remained over £2,000.[13] A letter in the Royal Archives shows that George IV wanted to know how many duplicates existed  in December 1822, and on enquiring about the matter was told there were not many as a sale of duplicates had already taken place in 1813.[14] K.Top contains a significant amount of material created and therefore acquired after George III had gone blind, and even after his death.[15] Some prints and drawings were ‘retained by the king’ (George IV) at a very late stage, requiring a note after the 1829 catalogue was printed. They are now found integrated in the Royal Collection with no sign of former K.Top numbering – was it simply erased, or does this suggest that the shelfmarks and cataloguing system thought of as an indication of how George III saw and used his collection were imposed after he ceased to have any involvement with it?[16]

St Albans and De Ladyinghe In Her Perck

View of St Albans Cathedral; figures, cattle and horses in fields in the foreground; houses in front and to the left. Bears inscription by a later hand 'St. Albans. by John Lievens, a disciple of Rembrandt' in brown ink along lower edge of support sheet. Bears inscription by a different hand 'This is by M. van Overbeek, also a disciple of Rembrandt, of drawings of Margate and Westminster in P & D (British Museum). ECM. 17 March 1967' in pencil on guard volume page.

George III’s King’s Topographical Collection contains two little known drawings by Michiel van Overbeek: one showing St Albans, the other Hyde Park.

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Was the ‘King’s Topographical Collection’ indeed ever a systematic collection, or at least a systematic collection guided by the personality and interests of George III himself? We can trace prints and drawings which remain as part of the Royal Collection and appear to show no evidence of ever having been part of the King’s Topographical Collection, but appear to be from the same sources as those which are, such as the views above, by van Overbeek.

Could K.Top be a 19th century invention, an expansion of the Great Atlas collection of maps by Barnard and his associates made by both actively collecting and rather randomly selecting works from the wider royal prints and drawings collections under George IV when Prince Regent and King? Does this have implications for how these images have been perceived and categorised, bearing in mind that it was at this point in the early 19th century that ‘topography’ had come to be seen as little more than ‘map-work’?

Further reading

Barber, Peter, 'King George III’s Topographical Collection: A Georgian View of Britain and the World', in Kim Sloan and Andrew Burnett (eds) Enlightenment : discovering the world in the eighteenth century (London, 2003).

Barber, Peter, 'George III and his Geographical Collection' in Jonathan Marsden (ed), The Wisdom of George III: papers from a symposium at Buckingham Palace June 2004 (Royal Collection, 2005), pp.263-89.

Footnotes

[1] Helen Wallis, 'The Map Collections of the British Museum Library', in Helen Wallis and Sarah Tyake (eds.) My Head is a Map: Essays and Memoirs in honour of R.V.Tooley (London: Francis Edwards and Carta Press, 1973), p.15.

[2] Bibilothecae Regia Catologus (London, 1820-29), I, pp viii-ix. George III’s coin and medal collection was also donated, and is now found in the British Museum.

[3] For example, the Klencke Atlas, but there are also visual (as opposed cartographic) items in K.Top which were owned by earlier monarchs, e.g. 128.h.10., and their consorts, e.g. Maps K.Top.35.10.q. 

[4] For example, Maps 8.Tab.c.6. 'Respectfully presented to The King by His Majesty's most devoted and humble Servant R. Hentzy'.

[5] [David Wiliams], Royal Recollections on a Tour to Cheltenham, Gloucester, Worcester and the Plaes Adjeacent in the year 1788, 7th edition, (London: printed for James Ridgway, 1788) T.167.(9); “I contented myself with travelling on maps. I passed the surface of Scotland, instructed in all its beauties by Bute and I fought every inch necessary to the conquest of America, with Sackville. Poor Sackville! We sympathised in unpopularity. He was a milder instructor than Bute; and he fought bravely on a map! The hills which terminate the horizon of Windsor, have been, hitherto, to me, the boundaries of the world”.In one of Gillray’s cruder prints he even assumes the form of a map.

[6] Ingram Cobbin, Georgiana: or Anecdotes of George the third, (London: W. Whittemore, 1820), p. 16, quoted by Peter Barber in The Wisdom of George the third, 2004.

[7] The King’s Military Collection is now held by the Royal Collection and the Maritime by the British Library.

[8] This volume listing the King’s Maritime Collection of sea-atlases, charts coastal profiles was never published.

[9] July 4 1827. Lot 248, sold for £400 to “L”. Many lots seem to coordinate with items in K.Top, such as lot 164 Vallancey (M.Gen.Ch) magnificent Original drawing of the map of Ireland, on 25 sheets, on canvas, in a russia portfolio.

[10] See the Geographical Journal, Vol. CXXVI, 1960, pp. 367-8 and Imago Mundi, Vol. 18 (1964), pp. 91-96.

[11] GEO/MAIN/15827-8, dated c. 1767-75.

[12] The letter sent following Queen Charlotte’s death, by Sir Herbert Taylor to royal bookseller George Nicol on 20 December 1818 about preparing her books for sale suggests the future George IV had an active role and concerns about costs: “All the books in the late Queen’s Library which have any of Her Majesty’s Writing or Annotations upon them, or are otherwise particularly distinguished as objects of Her Majesty’s Attention are to be reserved, and a Special List made of them, that the Princesses may have the option of selecting for themselves such as they may wish to keep. The remaining Books of this description to be purchased, if approved by the Prince Regent, for the King’s Library, at a reasonable valuation: this applies to all the Illustrated Works in which there is any of Her Majesty’s Writing, observing however that the Grainger or any other expensive Collections which, by the Erasure of a few Words, may be left for general sale, shall be so disposed of” see Jane Roberts,  'Edward Harding and Queen Charlotte', Burning Bright: Essays in Honour of David Bindman, edited by Diana Dethloff et al., (London: UCL Press, 2015), pp. 146–159, p. 156.

[13] Phil Harris, A history of the British Museum Library, 1753-1973,  (London: The British Library, 1998), p. 32.

[14] GEO/MAIN/22916

[15] For example, Maps K.Top.34.44.e.

[16] The numbering system adopted must have been late in the process, perhaps only as the collection was listed for transfer. Items such as an extensive collection of small views cut out of the annual volumes of the Polite Repository dating from 1792 to 1819 are sometimes the only collection item for an area but there is no sign of revision in the numbering system, suggesting the system was devised after they were extracted.

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 is leading an externally funded team cataloguing and digitizing George III’s maps and views, the King’s Topographical Collection, and managing a related research project, Transforming Topography. One outcome of the latter is the British Library webspace, Picturing Places.