Transforming Topography

Interior View of the East End of Netley Abbey near Southampton. Summary: A man sketching and a woman standing in the interior of the ruins of Netley Abbey; trees and foliage throughout the scene. Inscribed with title in black ink on verso. Inscribed 'O' in black ink on verso.
Interior View of the East End of Netley Abbey near Southampton.

This project aims to transform perceptions of topographical imagery.

Published date:

About the project

Topography is an emerging and dynamic field in art historical scholarship. The core aim of the Transforming Topography research project is to stimulate research in this often-overlooked field. We present topographical art as complex imagery which needs to be explored and understood in relation to the shifting motives of all those involved in its creation.

Rather than seeing topographical art as marginal compared to the landscapes in oils or watercolours by the canon of ‘great artists’ or more imaginative and Sublime images, a growing number of scholars are embracing the historical study of images of specific places in the graphic arts. This is sparking a lively debate around nationhood, identity, and cultural value, or what John Barrell describes as ‘the conflict and coexistence of the various… “stakeholders” in the landscape and in its representation’ (Barrell, Edward Pugh of Ruthin, 2013).

Our collection holds the world’s most extensive and important collection of British topographic materials: from handwritten notes by antiquarians to rare first editions, extra-illustrated books and unique compilations of plates, text and drawings by named collectors.

The British Library is a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in the intersections between place, art, representation and history, and the full extent and depth of the collections are only now being properly recognised and explored.


  • On 22 November 2013 the British Library hosted an exploratory workshop with the support of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, inviting 28 scholars to listen and respond to 11 short papers on single images from the King’s Topographical Collection.
  • We subsequently appointed a short term Research Curator to investigate our holdings, with generous support including a Curatorial Fellowship from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, a Special Project Grant from the Marc Fitch Fund and further donations from the Thriplow Charitable Trust, Coles Medlock Foundation, Finnis Scott Foundation and SP Lohia.
  • We hosted an international conference on 6 May 2016 with the support of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, with 12 speakers and over 120 attendees. Films of the event are available online.
  • On 31 March 2017 we launched Picturing Places, a free educational resource providing unprecedented access to the British Library’s topography. The result of partnerships with academics and collections worldwide, the site highlights a selection of our vast and varied collections to explore the history, context and motives for picturing places. Users can explore high-resolution digitised images and articles written by over 60 emerging and established scholars.

What happens next?

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