Fra Mauro produced what many consider to be the first ‘modern’ world map c.1450 as it included recent Portuguese discoveries in Africa. The importance of these is underlined by the fact that Africa is shown at the top, so you are immediately conscious of Portuguese domination. The East India Company considered the British Empire to be the natural successor to Portugal’s and commissioned this copy in 1804.
The scale and scope of 'Magnificent Maps' is extraordinary. Apart from a Roman marble fragment, the earliest map on display is a 13th-century Psalter Mappa Mundi illustration with God at the top and Jerusalem in the centre; the most recent is a Grayson Perry etching inspired by such spiritual representations and displayed beside them. The world and small significant sections of it are shown on vellum and cloth, in tapestry and wooden globes, and good use of additional visual material adds context to the ways these would all have originally been seen. Eight non-chronological rooms recreate the settings, so the first four, which deal with royal dominance, feature impressive, and often vast, maps designed to be hung as status enhancing works of art throughout a palace. The next four rooms cover political propaganda and advertising, domestic display, government agenda, and finally education or indoctrination. Alongside mass-produced prints reflecting a variety of political viewpoints, are faithful paintings of a Sussex estate and a bird’s eye view of Canton, which reminded the first owners of their source of wealth and power, and impressed visitors. Many of the exhibits require very close inspection, and magnifying glasses are provided for looking at some of the displays.
The Klencke Atlas is the largest book in the world and, at almost six feet tall, you can see why it has not been on display before. Charles II was given the book at his restoration to the throne in 1660 by the Dutch merchant Johannes Klencke. It is displayed close to the smallest atlas, which was made for Queen Mary’s dollshouse in 1924 and has Britain represented on every page.
It was an enormous help to be shown round the exhibition by the curators. Peter Barber, who has been at the Map Library for 30 years, has an enthusiasm for his subject and love of the 4 ½ million maps making up the collection, which is infectious. All but nine of the one hundred examples on display belong to the British Library.