I adore maps, for their ability to take mundane lines and place-names, and transform them into landscapes of the mind. If I were ever to be asked for my Desert Island book (a question I ponder more than is healthy) I think it would have to be the London A to Z.
I could roam around old haunts, take walks or cycle rides along the Regents Canal or through Hyde Park, trace Clarissa Dalloway’s shopping expedition, follow Vanity Fair’s heroines from Russell Square to obscurity in Chelsea or triumph in Mayfair. The novels of Dickens unfold in the little streets around Lincoln’s Inn and Seven Dials, while the illicit thrills of 1950s Soho are laid out in cartographical fashion. A thousand books in one volume, in other words. And I want the big London A-Z, taking in the suburbs where I grew up, so I can pay my respects to Phyllis Pearsal, the dogged genius who began the A-Z itself, in Dulwich’s Court Lane.
So, as you may imagine, I was thrilled when the British Library just across the Euston Road opened its Magnificent Maps exhibition. I wasn’t the only one; the exhibition buzzed with excited crowds, and it was possible to spot that little gleam of obsession sparkling in many an eye. If this is an exhibition for nerds, there are an awful lot of us.
To the observation that nothing furnishes a room like books, I think I can now add ‘except maps’. Whether you want to boast of your wealth and standing, intimidate your rivals, make a political point, or lay out an entire philosophy, there’s a map for the purpose. Gold-leaf artfully outlined the coastlines of a staggeringly beautiful 16th century map of the Mediterranean (pictured). The mysterious Mappa Mundi from the Medieval world was an encyclopaedia of existing knowledge, most of it completely closed to us today. The European powers laid religious and political claim to the New World, carving up territory and stamping their names across the newly-discovered continent.
Crowds gather before the newest map in the exhibition, Stephen Walter’s The Island, a witty and pointed map of London, playing on the way that Londoners tend to see their city as the be-all and end-all of the country. Demonstrating an even narrower focus, the Londoners in the exhibition immediately homed in on their own quarter of the capital, to see what Walter has to say about it. Of course, I looked up Bloomsbury, where the Brunswick Centre is shown clearly. There’s a reference to the ‘Bleumundsbury Set’ and a picture of the British Museum, with a note that ‘Marx read here’.
For diehard Bloomsburies, there’s a lot more detail on the enormous Community Map of Bloomsbury, displayed in the foyer. Local organisations, artists and community groups were each asked to fill one grid of the map, with photographs, drawings, poetry. Eagerly, I looked to see what the local primary school had done with the street where I live. Coloured it in, was the slightly disappointing answer!
At least it existed. You’d be pushed to find Bloomsbury at all on my favourite map, a survey of London taken a few years after the Great Fire in 1666, commissioned by Charles II. This fascinating document, of a city in the process of being remade, shows Lambs’ Conduit as an isolated well, Hackney as a country village, and ‘the road to Oxford’ as a rural ride. It took me a minute to realise that’s Oxford Street. Great Russell Street was there, but marked the upper limits of the city. No British Museum, no great railway terminus at St Pancras, Euston, Kings Cross.
Yet, closer to the centre, the familiar sights remained. Somerset House, down by the river. Fetter Lane, leading north from Fleet Street. The law courts, Westminster Hall, St Paul’s Cathedral. And then you do a double-take. That’s not the St Paul’s we know and love, and nor is it the old St Paul’s, familiar from older panoramic views of the river. It must be an early Wren depiction, before the cathedral was built. Fascinating to see what might have been.
I’ve visited twice now, and each time have needed to be encouraged out by the staff at closing time, without finding time to see everything. This is an exhibition I’ll return to again and again.
Image: With the permission of the British Library Board