Tom Harper promises ‘an atlas with a difference’ and he does not disappoint. Drawing on the British Library’s vast cartographical collections he has produced what he describes as ‘an atlas of time travel’: a route to understanding how past cultures conceptualised the world. Here, maps become more than functional objects and transform into ‘vehicles of meaning’. The utility of maps is not neglected, and there is much to be gleaned from 15th century invasion maps of Scotland, charts of 17th century French post-roads or the fascinating jigsaw maps created to teach geography to wellheeled 18th century children. But we also encounter the ‘devotional cartography’ that allowed expressions of faith, and fantasy maps of imagined places.
Harper’s selections are wonderful: everything from Nelson’s scruffy sketches of Egypt to the Klencke Atlas presented to Charles II – a monster of a tome, four yards long, which was an exercise in showing off. Best of all are the samples that you’d be privileged to hang on your wall and which truly are works of art: 17th century Japanese maps painted on silk or 1790s watercolours of Ontario portrayed on birchbark.
The reader emerges with a sense of the different additions of map-making around the world, and also of how they have often hybridised. Lots of compelling stories are also recounted, from the Dutch stealing charts from the Portuguese during the days of competition in east Asia, to Jesuit missionaries producing maps and globes to impress their Chinese hosts. Harper asks the basic question: what is a map? It could be an astonishingly detailed depiction of Old Delhi produced by local draftsmen, or a chart of 1930s Johannesburg commissioned by an insurance company. Pick this book up at dawn and you won’t be able to put it down until dusk.
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