Review of The Curious Map Book

by Ashley Baynton-Williams

University of Chicago Press, 2015

240 pages, 100 color plates. $45.00, hardcover.

ISBN: 978-0-226-23715-2

Review by: Mark Denil

The Curious Map Book

Cartographic curiosities are always engaging, as demonstrated by the variety of map miscellanies available on the market. The Curious Map Book by Ashley Baynton-Williams might, at first glance, seem to be just another such compendium of a few odds and sods tossed together to milk the trade; but that impression would be wrong. It is, in fact, an excellent, long-baseline overview of unique and interesting cartographic curiosities assembled by someone with a comprehensive grasp of the historical horizon.

The layout of the book is familiar enough: two columns of descriptive text on the left page and a full-map, full-color illustration on the right. Although the author, Baynton-Williams, “is an antiquarian map dealer and researcher,” his commentary is equally far from both dreary pedantry and salesroom sophistry. His remarks are short and concise, with enough description to illuminate the exhibit and enough context to establish the map’s position in history. The accompanying photos are clear and sharp, and provide a reasonably good view of the map under consideration. The main photo pages are supplemented with twenty-two additional detail images (on the appropriate description pages) and five two-page photo spreads of particularly large and detailed maps. The maps with two-page spreads usually use their regular illustration page for a full-bleed detail shot.

The volume itself is solidly bound, with pages that fall open easily and sit between boards covered with green cloth. The dust cover has fine, large, illustrations front and back, and has a spine title block that mimics a pasted label. The book has a nice heft, and is sized to balance well in the hand. The paper has a medium gloss, and, while it is not particularly opaque, the book design makes that less of a problem than it might be. The left-hand pages have lots of clear white space with sharp black text, while the right-hand pages (that are, in practice, the back sides of the left-hand pages) are covered with solid, full-bleed ink: the parts not covered by the map are filled with a dense background color that varies by book section. This helps to give the white page areas on the reverse a good, smooth, non-distracting ground; this is an effect that may or may not have been in the mind of the book designer, but which is appreciated.

The book opens with an Introduction, followed by four chapters: “The Dawn Of Mapmaking (To 1594),” “Early Published Maps (1598–1760),” “Commercial Cartography and Education (1760–1850),” and “The Victorian Era and Growth of the Mass Market (1850–).” A list of “Cartobibliographical Details” and an Index round things out.

The great majority of the maps, dating from 1493 to 2008, are drawn from the British Library; only seven or so are from foundation, dealer, or private collections. Two-thirds of the maps are from British publishers. Of the non-Britannic maps, two-thirds come from the large Continental mapping centers: France, Germany, and the Low Countries, but only four are extra-European (including two from the US). Interestingly, the two maps made in the US were authored by a visiting English actress / illustrator / cartographer, Eliza Jane (Lilian) Lancaster, and are the only two manuscript maps included.

As might well be expected, wood cut maps dominate the first, 1493–1594, chapter. Copper engravings then fill up the middle chapters (to 1760 and to 1850, respectively), although lithographed maps start cropping up in the later part of the latter period. After 1850, it is, of course, monochrome or color lithography that dominates. Besides these mainstream products (in whatever era) and the manuscripts already mentioned, the volume includes a pair of steel engravings, a couple of etchings, a pair of rugs, and a ceramic pitcher, plus a handful of maps from unidentified production processes.

In his Introduction, the author taxonomizes his map selections as “breaking down into five broad bands, not neccessarily [sic] mutually exclusive: game maps, maps in animal form, maps in human form, maps on objects, and allegorical maps — moral, political or religious” (6), and he briefly discusses the distinguishing features of each type, before plunging into the maps themselves.

The map descriptions are succinct and informative, and are clearly epitomes of larger bodies of information. Where hard information is short (in the case, say, of a game missing its instruction sheet), the author goes no further in speculation than is reasonable, and where there is likely a wealth of detail available, his remarks seem pertinent and well chosen.

Yes, there are one or two typographic errors; yes, some of the maps could have been rotated and shown slightly larger (in any event, a magnifying glass is useful); and, yes, there a real preponderance of British maps; but there is really very little to quibble about.

One nagging peculiarity is the constantly varying placement of the map image on the right-hand page. All maps are oriented with the top up, so, of necessity, landscape-oriented maps are shown somewhat smaller than they might be; their size is limited by the page width. The book designer tried, wherever possible, to align the top of the map image (on the right-hand page) with the top of the two-column text block on the left-hand page. As the page headers vary in depth (some titles take up three, four, or even five lines, and other header information like title translations and artifact measurements may also run that long), the text block may start quite far down the page. The tops of the photos, then, are never at a set distance from the top of the page. I counted at least eighteen different positions for the tops of the maps; a couple were a good four inches down page: more than a third of the way down! Compounding the matter, it was not always possible to get the whole map onto the remaining page, so in some cases the photo had to be moved up the page anyway, violating the convention. One would think that once a layout convention had shown itself unworkable, another, more consistently applicable approach would be adopted. As it stands, as one pages through the book, successive maps seem to pogo up and down like Commander Keen.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of quaint and curious treasures to be discovered in these 240 pages, both in the first and in subsequent readings. If you are looking for a book on cartographic curiosities, The Curious Map Book is well worth consideration: the exhibits are well chosen, the collection covers a considerable sweep of time, and it includes examples not too likely to be overly well known. Furthermore, it contains a wealth of information plainly and engagingly expounded. At less than fifty dollars, you can’t go far wrong choosing The Curious Map Book.