Maps, their making and use, leapt into my consciousness recently when my editor asked me if I was sure that one of my characters could have used a map in thirteenth century Al Andalus.  This is just the sort of potential anachronism which readers light upon ( see Authenticity & Verisimilitude ). Though, in this instance, it wasn’t anachronistic.

Maps have been in use in the West since classical times, although they tended to be local. They weren’t standardised as they are now and measurement wasn’t either.  So using them could be a bit of a struggle – if distances weren’t actually marked, the spaces between places could be treated as being somewhat elastic – though broad direction was fine and landmarks were often used. One Arab geographer went so far as to design a map which showed only the relationship between places, not distance. This resembled the map which Harry Beck would design almost a thousand years later, for the London Underground. This iconic map was, in turn, the basis for The Great Bear by Simon Patterson, a map transformed into modern art. 

The Arab geographer Ibn al-Idrisi had formulated a map of the world for Roger of Sicily in 1154, the Tabula Rogeriana, including the Iberian peninsular. Seris (Jerez) and Kadis (Cadiz) are clearly shown. But this was on a grand scale and the map in my book is a local one, probably drawn for a wealthy merchant or aristocrat.

I must confess, however, that I am a cartophile or map lover (though not a collector). It is the romance of a map, the infinite number of possibilities caught in the web of names, lines and pictograms which delights me. A framed page from Camden’s Britannia hangs on my wall (though I was not the destroyer of the book from which the map came) and I own Atlases of the modern and the ancient world.  They don’t have to be accurate, just beautiful or evocative and, inevitably, they spark the imagination.

Maps are also art, of course and the Britannia is only one example of a book which has been cut up for its maps, which are then framed and sold – barbaric practice, why not buy the book? I have recently signed up to purchase a modern map book, Adam Dant’s Maps of London & Beyond (Spitalfields Books June 2018) but, I can assure you, I will not be doing any framing any time soon.  Dant creates maps across time, like his Treasures of Hackney, which maps not just the present day roads but the area’s past ( an information box on the map is entitled ‘Where to Dig’ ) or his Coffee Houses of London, celebrating those early trading floors.

Maps can be of much more than a place, or, as in Dant’s maps, a place across time. They can chart experience and feeling. Although it no longer hangs upon my wall I still have a map of Rome which I drew and painted many years ago, which shows the apartments of my friends (and some of their contents, items which are particularly meaningful to me) and specific squares and gardens I spent time in. As well as some of the major ancient landmarks – indeed the sketch of the Foro Romano shows a young girl (me) sitting and sketching it.  There is a similar map of Jerez which is partially completed even now in my portfolio holder and I have, in the past, made maps like these for friends and on commission. These, highly personal, maps are still beautiful creations, even to external viewers for whom the meaning of the details may be unknown. They are accurate but have very little to do with getting one from A to B in any but metaphorical terms.

Nonetheless maps tend to survive. The Great Bear was, of course, part of the extremely popular Sensations exhibition of the Cool Britannia era, an era whose lustre may have faded, but the map, like the Tabula Rogeriana is still with us.

If you enjoyed reading this piece you might also enjoy                            Burial Grounds of London                               Metamorphosis                              Stones                                      

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