Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art – British Library, 14 September 2010

True to form, I managed to get to the Magnificent Maps exhibition at the British Library just days before it ended. Truly shocking considering that I had it in my calendar ever since the exhibition had been announced, months and months before.

Maps are wonderful things. I love maps. I could happily stare at maps all day long. They are not only beautiful, they also serve a variety of purposes.

The exhibition was well curated, which is now the norm for a British Library exhibition. We had examples of satirical maps; political maps; maps celebrating political victories; military maps; survey maps; black humour maps and tourist maps. It was interesting to see how the use of maps developed and evolved. From the late 1930’s onwards, for example, they were used for adverts.

Although each map was interesting in its own right, I have my favourites… I’m thinking for example of the wonderful ‘Tea Revives the World‘ map (MacDonald Gill, 1940), with its witty comments “Tea is always drunk on the big game safaris“, “Sahara desert: no water to make tea” and “Here are tea plantations“. Useful stuff, hey. It’s a lovely map, it truly is. It can’t fail to bring a smile to your face. I’m sure we can all identify with Rev. Sydney Smith’s famous quote: “I am glad I was not born before Tea“(1771-1845) . Such a shame the map is not available to buy!

There were tiny pocket globes, which were taken and used on journeys. They were useful to study, provided intellectual stimulation but also amusement. These are so small that you can imagine the skills needed to create them. We’re told that they were ‘prized curiosities’ and you can believe one would have been proud to be the owner of such a small object of beauty.

There were other wonders such as the world smallest atlas; the largest atlas in the world and a marble fragment from a Roman map.

One of the other maps which truly fascinated me is Pierre Desceliers’s “The World for a King“. I had to be dragged away. It’s so detailed and visually interesting.

Stephen Walter’s map “The Island” is fun. Great fun. Another popular map that one, pulling the crowd,  everyone eager to find out their street and see what the artist had to say about their personal bit of London. But it’s not all fun… some of the comments and perceptions have a lot to say about London… it’s almost like a biography of the capital city. Or a homage.

Another map which caught my eye which may have been entitled ‘A map of Znejiang Province c. 1700‘ but I’m not 100% sure as I can’t read my notes! Anyway, what caught my eye there is that although the map is functional, it is beautifully drawn (especially the terrain and the mountains).

And then there’s M I Tomasik’s “Pictorial Map of European Russia“. A beautiful educational map, originally for school-children. Isn’t it fun? I love the polar bear!

But hey… they were all great in their own little way. And I could have mentioned many more.

That’s what’s fascinating about maps. You could ask a group of artists to draw a specific map and you would end up which different versions… all interpreted differently by the artist. Each revealing a bit more about the place but a lot about the artist and the way they see the world.

Magnificent Maps - exhibition guide (British Library)     Magnificent Maps leaflet

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I'm an inquisitive being. Everything is an adventure: art, architecture, colours, food, patterns, people... and travel! And I love elephants. That's what I mostly write about.
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