Science and nature

Discover images of the natural world treated as objects of fascination.


Copy Chart of the Society Islands, by James Cook after Tupai’a.

Collecting the Pacific

The first encounters of the Pacific by explorers such as Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks opened Europeans' eyes to a rich new world. Dr Philip Hatfield recalls this age of discovery as told through the topographical collections of the British Library.

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Map of the Eure River from Pontgouin to Versailles

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

Article by:
Mercedes Cerón

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.

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Attributed to Richard Lee, View of the Town and Harbour of Calais, about 1541, Cotton, Augustus I.ii.70.

The paper revolution: the origin of large scale technical drawing under Henry VIII

Article by:
Anthony Gerbino

The first important transformation of English medieval design practice occurred in a military context, during the reign of Henry VIII. Pioneering plans, surveys and designs by leading Tudor engineers are housed in the British Library, particularly within Sir Robert Cotton’s manuscript collection. Anthony Gerbino, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Manchester, explores further.

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PANORAMIC VIEW of that part of Ratisbon west of the cathedral, painted in water-colours by G. Scharf, sen.; 1845. Paper; 6 ft. 1/2 in. X 1 ft.

The spectacle of the panorama

Article by:
Markman Ellis

What was a panorama? Markman Ellis explores the evolution of this immersive form of topographical art.

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Andreas Cellarius, Atlas Coelestis

Earth and the Heavens in maps

Article by:
Peter Whitfield

Peter Whitfield shows how British Library maps chart the evolution of man's understanding of the earth and cosmos.

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Waerachtighe Beschrijvinghe van drie seylagien, by Gerrit de Veer.

Icescapes: Printing the Arctic

Arctic ice has long proved a stern adversary to explorers, especially those seeking navigable passages through the polar regions. Dr Philip Hatfield explores the representation of this fearful foe by explorers across the centuries.

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Fore front of the Weavers' House near Bowmore on the Island of Islay, by James Miller.

The Weaver's Cottage in Islay

Article by:
Nigel Leask

The members of Joseph Banks' voyage to Iceland in 1772 did not have to travel far to see the unusual. A humble dwelling on the Hebridean island of Islay provided a source of fascination for the expedition's artists, writes Nigel Leask.

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A map of the roads through England, Wales and part of Scotland from Daniel Paterson's British Itinerary (1785)

The natural world through early modern strip maps: a narrow view of nature

Article by:
Daniel Maudlin

Drawing on the British Library’s collection of 18th-century road maps, travel guides and atlases, Daniel Maudlin considers how the road-building boom of Georgian Britain and British America transformed actual and imaginative experiences of travel.

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Plan of Solway Moss

John Ainslie's plan of Solway Moss – Recording a lost landscape

Article by:
Bill Shannon

Bill Shannon of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society offers an in depth analysis of a manuscript map in George III’s King’s Topographical Collection, exploring it as a unique record of place.

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Lucas de Heere (1534-84), Stonehenge, about 1573-5, pen and ink on paper

Topography and prehistoric Britain

Article by:
Sam Smiles

Britain's prehistoric landscapes are depicted in prints and drawings across the British Library's collections. Sam Smiles, Emeritus Professor of Art History, University of Plymouth, explores further.

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A Sassanian bas-relief at Nakshi-Roustam with Ker Porter sketching it, by Sir Robert Ker Porter.

Painting Persepolis

Article by:
Christopher Wright

Sir Robert Ker Porter's accounts of his travels in the Middle East gave a glimpse into a region that was largely unknown to most Europeans. His original watercolours provide a compelling visual source and are both descriptive of their settings and beautiful works of art in their own right. Christopher Wright recounts Porter's journey into an unfamiliar and enchanting landscape.

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Summary: Nocturnal scene; a group of men watch the eruption of Mount Vesuvius from a pier next to a tower, with harbour and lighthouse at left, sailing ships and Bay of Naples at right and flames and clouds of smoke from the volcano covering the sky in the background; within painted frame with black edge, annotated with title in white ink below.  Summary: Titled ‘Molo di Napoli, con terribile eruzione del Vesuvio mandata fuori la sera de 15 del mese di Giugno, 1794; ad ore 2 di notte.

A royal armchair traveller: The Grand Tour and the King’s Topographical Collection

Article by:
Mercedes Cerón

George III never visited Italy. Instead he collected prints, drawings and guidebooks enabling him to travel virtually to antiquity's greatest architectural and artistic sites. Mercedes Cerón explores this rich collection of Grand Tour material to shed light on George III's particular brand of armchair tourism.

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William Daniell, A View of the East India Docks, published by William Daniell, London, 1808, aquatint with hand-colouring, plate 49.6 x 86 cm, on sheet 59.2 x 93.1 cm, British Library, London, Maps K.Top.21.31.5.c.PORT.11.TAB.

The New London Docks (1800–1830)

Article by:
Alice Rylance-Watson

From 1800, London’s dock system was revolutionised, and many commemorative prints were published to celebrate the transformation. William Daniell’s prints of the new docks represented London’s modernisation in particularly exultant terms. Alice Rylance-Watson explores.

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Piazza and Church of Santa Maria Forisportam in Lucca by Bernardo Bellotto. Carriage and figures in the Piazza di Santa Maria Bianca in the foreground, with group of three-storey houses, Colonna Mozza and end of the Via Santa Croce at left, palazzo and campanile at right, and main façade of the Chiesa di Santa Maria Forisportam in the background.

The Ground Glass: Landscape Art, the Camera Obscura and Photography

Article by:
Michael Collins

With reference to collection items in the British Library and beyond, photographer Michael Collins shows how the portable camera obscura was used as a drawing aid by landscape artists of the late 17th and 18th centuries.

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Shaft of a Lead Mine. View near Pont Aberglasslyn, Carnarvonshire, looking towards the Bay of Cardigan, by John Hassell.

John Hassell, Wales and the ‘industrial picturesque’

Article by:
Mary-Ann Constantine

Mary-Ann Constantine examines the harmonious blending of modern industry with the Welsh landscape in a series of prints by the London-based artist, John Hassell.

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George Cruikshank's 1836 etching of visitors looking at giraffes.

A delightful promenade: The early topography of London Zoo 1826–1837

Article by:
Oliver Flory

Oliver Flory traces the early development of London Zoo from the establishment of the Zoological Society of London’s Gardens through contemporary topographical images.

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Further themes

Antiquarianism

How did amateurs, collectors and enthusiasts record the past before the development of history as a modern discipline?

Country

Idyllic views, working landscapes and natural wonders: explore the allure of picturing the countryside.

Military and maritime

Before photography, what role did handmade images play in military and maritime enterprise?

Science and nature

Discover images of the natural world treated as objects of fascination.

Town and city

Pictures of the built environment: how do they reveal religious, political and social history?

Transforming topography

Changing ideas about the nature and purpose of views and records of place.