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Sea Charts - a Brief History

Sea charts, whether printed or in manuscript form, often have a romantic appeal far stronger than that of land maps. Man’s intrepid voyages through uncharted waters and the dangers inherent in sailing unsophisticated craft, even in known parts, can often be sensed when examining a chart.

Before the development of printing there was an active chart making industry based around the Mediterranean in places like Genoa, Venice and Majorca. From such centres manuscript ‘rutters’ and ‘portolans’ were produced for the Mediterranean and Southern European Atlantic coasts. Both ‘rutter’ and ‘portolan’ originally referred to a sequence of written directions and sailing instructions, and the expression ‘portolan chart’ came from the cartographic representation of such detail. The earliest known chart dates from the end of the thirteenth century and there are over one hundred known surviving charts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This number is increasing slowly as occasionally a long lost chart is found, but due to the nature of their use only a very small proportion of the original production has survived. Besides the expected ‘wear and tear’ on board ship, the fact that the majority of these charts were drawn on vellum (an animal skin which is particularly long-lasting) has, in certain ways, proved something of a disadvantage. Once a chart was out of date the hard-wearing vellum could be put to other uses. Recently, there have been several cases on the market of fragments of portolan charts on vellum, which had been cut up and used as book covers in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

In 1485 there was the first attempt to produce working printed charts. This took the form of an ‘Isolario’ or ‘Island book’, and was a combination of written directions and charts, albeit crudely engraved, of Greek islands, their ports and harbours. Bartolommeo dalli Sonetti was the author of this book and his principle was greatly expanded in 1528 by Benedetto Bordone who showed, in very crude outline, islands from all over the world including the West Indies, Asia and Japan. Despite the roughness of Bordone’s maps the book was obviously popular, being reprinted in 1534, 1547 and around 1565.

Throughout the sixteenth century the manuscript portolan, in single sheet or atlas form, was the only relatively accurate source of navigating information. In addition to the Mediterranean schools of chart makers there were new schools in Lisbon, Dieppe, La Rochelle and London and it was these Atlantic-based centres that remained important during the seventeenth century.

By this time, the Low Countries were becoming established as the European centre of map making and it is no surprise that, with the expansion of their marine and mercantile empire, the production of printed sea charts should also develop here. The Mediterranean was well known and European interest was targeted beyond the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

In 1584 an experienced seaman and pilot, Lucas Jansszoon Waghenaer, had published his compilation of charts, Spieghel der Zeervaerdt. In mid century the Spanish and Portuguese held strong control over maritime trade, and Dutch ships became the main distributors of goods from the Iberian peninsula to other Western and Northern European ports. The Dutch had also chosen, in view of the Spanish domination in the South, to sail north into the Baltic and along the Norwegian coast to Lapland. Waghenaer had probably been on these trips and fully understood the requirements of navigators. He lived at the thriving port of Enkhuizen and, in 1579, obtained a permanent position as an excise officer. By this time his intentions to produce a chart book were materialising, and when he was dismissed from his post for certain financial irregularities in 1582, he had to put all his efforts into finding financial backing for his project.

As soon as the first part of the book was published, with 23 charts, it was acclaimed as a great success and, together with Part II (a further 21 charts), it was republished frequently over the next 20 years. The book’s success was not limited to its original Dutch text - editions in Latin (1585), English (1588), German (1589) and French (1590) soon appeared.

In view of the threat of competition from Amsterdam chart makers - especially Cornelis Claesz - Waghenaer soon began working on an improved chart book. The Thresoor der Zeevaert, first published in 1592, has more detailed charts and a different format (oblong quarto as opposed to the standard atlas folio of its predecessor). Of most interest, however, is the incorporation of coastal charts beyond the European coastline (Cadiz to northern Norway), added after the first edition. Charts of the Moroccan coast, Trinidad and South-East Asia can be found. Any edition of this work is much more rare than the earlier publication and though Waghenaer intended the Thresoor to be less ‘up-market’ than the Spieghel, the quality of this work and its engraving is superb.

During the first half of the seventeenth century Amsterdam saw the production of many printed charts and chart books, most of which are now very rare. The Blaeus, Gerritz, Barents and Colom all produced notable work, but the most important publication of the period was that of an Englishman working in Italy. Gerard Mercator’s new projection of 1569 had received little support from the sailors it was designed to assist and, despite Edward Wright’s explanatory treatise of 1599, few maps and even fewer charts had been drawn on this principle. Sir Robert Dudley’s Arcana del Mare was the first atlas published on Mercator’s projection, the first sea atlas to cover the whole world and also the first sea atlas by an Englishman. Moreover, it is one of the finest engraved atlases of any period. The atlas was first published in 1646-7 and a second, enlarged edition appeared, posthumously, in 1661.

Amsterdam, however, maintained its prominent position and separate charts and sea atlases appeared in profusion. In 1650 Jansson published a marine atlas as part of his Atlantis Majoris ... with 23 maps, entitled Orbem Maritimum. Work by Lootsman, Doncker, Van Loon, Robijn, Roggeveen, Goos, De Wit and the Van Keulens may be encountered. Despite lack of originality in much of this work some of these productions are technically or artistically superb.

Designed to be sold as a supplement to Blaeu’s Atlas Major, the Zee Atlas of Pieter Goos (1666-1683) is, when rarely found, often bound in vellum to match the Blaeu with charts in fine gold-embellished colour. Separate charts from the book can be found on the market and are well worth considering for their quality of design, engraving and colouring alone. Charts were often printed on thick paper, or thin paper laid onto thick (as is frequently the case with Goos’ maps), in order to prolong their working life.

Another important firm of chart producers was the Van Keulen family who published charts - both manuscript and printed - and atlases from about 1680 for over one hundred years. Their dominance in the Dutch trade was confirmed by the appointment of Gerard van Keulen as Hydrographer to the Dutch East India Company.

The Van Keulen publishing house’s Zee-Fakkel was one of the most important Dutch sea atlases and was eventually published in five volumes charting all the seas and oceans of the world. The numerous charts in these volumes were amongst the most detailed, up-to-date and respected of their day. Editions with Dutch, French and Spanish text were published, and English and Italian versions were also considered - testimony to the international demand for the publication.

The family business had been established by Johannes Van Keulen, with the first atlas being published in 1680, but achieved its greatest recognition under the management of his son Gerard between 1704 and 1726. Gerard combined the essential skills of a talented cartographer/engraver with the disciplines of mathematics and an understanding of the principles of navigation. Introducing the Mercator projection into the Zee-Fakkel charts, he was responsible for the production of the greatest atlas of sea charts of the time.

In addition to his family’s commercial concerns, and in recognition of his skills, he was appointed Hydrographer to the Dutch East India Company. This position was one of the greatest importance since the company was responsible for the collection of detailed, secret charts and their distribution to sailors heading for the Indies. Implicitly the company not only supplied the best available information but was also kept informed of the most recent discoveries as soon as the details could reach Amsterdam.

After Gerard’s death in 1726 the business was continued by various members of the family for a further hundred years, and maintained the reputation earlier established, reissuing and updating the various editions of the six parts of the Zee-Fakkel. Many of the charts from these later editions show evidence of their age, being old impressions from old copperplates. Nevertheless, these rare charts are detailed and, often, the largest scale available of any of those areas covered.

During this same period both the French and the English chart making trades were developing and producing notable charts. Under Louis XIV, French interest in the sciences incorporated a reappraisal of cartographic techniques. Cassini, Director of the Paris Observatory, had initiated and seen the completion of a new survey of France from which new coastal charts were prepared and published in 1693 in Paris and in Amsterdam by Hubert Jaillot in conjunction with Pierre Mortier. The first edition of Le Neptune François included other European coastlines in 29 large charts. Frequently found bound in combination with Le Neptune are the nine superbly engraved charts (amongst the most elaborate of any period) by Romein de Hooghe, and the Suite du Neptune François, a collection of 37 charts of foreign waters published by Mortier. In this, charts of the African, Asian and North American coastlines are well represented. The original Neptune François plates eventually found their way to the official French ‘Depot des Cartes et Plans de la Marine at Versailles’ and from here, in association with maps by Jacques Nicolas Bellin, were reissued from 1753 until into the next century.

Manuscript work by the London chart makers of the Thames School had been respected and employed since the early seventeenth century. By around 1670 the printed charts and sea atlases of John Seller and, subsequently, John Thornton and others were also widely used.

In 1693 the first national survey of the British coasts, by Captain Greenville Collins, was published in London and its life extended for nearly one hundred years. However, of far greater importance during this period were the activities of numerous English chart makers active along foreign shores whose work was subsequently published in London. John Seller in his Atlas Maritimus of 1675 had relied extensively on earlier Dutch work, either using the original copperplates or copying directly, with the exception of only a few charts. However, some of these ‘new’ charts are of particular interest, showing the latest reports from the new English colonies on the American north-east coast. Through the publications of John Seller, his colleague John Thornton and others we can trace the origins of one of the most important eighteenth-century chart books. The English Pilot, whose first volume appeared in 1671, was ultimately composed of six parts, each containing between twenty and thirty-six charts, covering the navigation of each section of the world. The Pilot was published in numerous editions throughout the eighteenth century by the prolific chart- making firm of Mount and Page.

From around 1750 increasing numbers of better quality charts were being produced of the China Seas and of the North American coasts. English surveyors and chart makers worthy of note include William Herbert, Joseph Speer, Alexander Dalrymple, William Heather, Captain James Cook, Robert Sayer and John Bennett. French chart producers include LeRouge, d’Apres de Mannevillette, Dumont d’Urville and Sartine.

One of the greatest sea atlases of any period is Des Barres’ Atlantic Neptune. Joseph Frederic Wallet des Barres was a British national of Swiss extraction who spent some eight years surveying the Atlantic coasts of North America, the Saint Lawrence Gulf and Nova Scotia. Returning to England he was instructed to compile an atlas of charts to improve on existing material. The Atlantic Neptune was published in 1784 and contained many engravings of coastal or city profiles as well as advanced shading and hachuring techniques. All in all the resultant charts are most magnificent. Where des Barres was not able to use his own survey work, for example he had not travelled to the southern coasts, he used the most up-to-date surveys and reports from British mariners.

As with the increasing sophistication of land cartography, by 1800 European marine hydrography was also moving into the modern phase. The British Admiralty had established its own Hydrographic Office in 1795 under the supervision of Alexander Dalrymple, and its first charts were published in 1801.

French marine explorers in Cook’s tracks were active in the Pacific and were supplied with charts by the Depot des Cartes et Plans de la Marine. In the United States, a Survey of Coasts was initiated in 1809, although little happened until the 1830s when chart production commenced.

Many of these nineteenth-century charts remain the base models, with few revisions, for today’s sailing charts.

Town Plans

Town plans are designed to provide the viewer with a more precise awareness of a particular place. Not only does the large scale of a town plan allow the identification of small details, but the map maker/engraver can also give specific information on local customs, local economy and the actual appearance of buildings.

The greatest publication in this genre is undoubtedly Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum, published in Cologne from 1572. This great work is a combination of three specific styles of town representation, each with its roots in Medieval art:

1. The Panorama A purely pictorial view of a town showing buildings in two dimensional profile.

2. The Plan A scaled representation as viewed from directly above; a large scale map or plot of the land - an extension of the surveying technique for estate plans or building or engineers’ plans.

3. The Bird’s-eye View An oblique view - a combination of both panorama and plan. This innovation permitted both cartographic and pictorial detail to be shown and proved enduringly popular.

Before the Civitates there had been only a very few printed plans produced, apart from some by Sebastian Munster of German cities in his Cosmographia, and by Lodovico Guicciardini in his Descrittione di tutti i Paesi Bassi of Low Country towns. Also mentioned are the town panoramas in Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, in which 26 double page and numerous single page boldly woodcut views of European towns can be found.

The Civitates was compiled and written by Georg Braun, Canon of Cologne Cathedral. Braun gathered together vast amounts of information and draft plans to produce over 500 city views/maps published in six parts between 1572 and 1617. Most of these engravings were made by Simon Novellanus and Frans Hogenberg, many after drawings by Joris Hoefnagel, a professional topographic artist. Hogenberg, who had also produced maps for Ortelius’ Theatrum, died in about 1590 and his work was continued by one Abraham Hogenberg, presumed to be his son.

The majority of views in the book are, naturally, of European cities with a particular emphasis on the Low Countries and Germany, but there are also views of Middle Eastern cities, North and West African ports, Indian Ocean ports, Cusco and Mexico. This great work, in the systematic tradition of Ortelius, is one of the great books of the Renaissance. Among the loose sheet maps from the Civitates which now come onto the market, often in fine original colour, collectors have the opportunity of finding the earliest plan of their town or city.

After the book’s last edition in 1618, the copperplates remained in Cologne until about 1653 when they were acquired by Jan Jansson and reissued four years later with reset text. Some of the plates were subsequently reissued by Jansson’s heirs in 1682, by Frederic de Wit in 1710, and by Covens and Mortier later in the century. The London map, for example, was republished by Jansson and again in 1708 by Christopher Hatton in his history of London; in each case the copperplate suffered some re-engraving.

In the absence of re-engraving of the copperplate, and without means of checking text on the reverse of the map to identify the edition, one can assume that the original Cologne issue of a plate was printed on smaller size paper than the later Dutch editions.

The success of the Civitates led to a variety of imitations - later editions of Munster’s Cosmographia included copies of many of the plans. François de Belleforest incorporated copies of the Civitates originals in his own edition of Munster’s work. Francesco Valegio in Venice in 1595 and Daniel Meissner in c.1625 issued miniature town books based almost entirely on the Civitates, while the town views and plans seen in the borders of most ‘cartes a figures’ can be traced back to the same source.

In Holland Jan Jansson acquired the Civitates copperplates to contest the market with Joan Blaeu, who from 1649 had published his own collection of around 220 town plans of the Netherlands. Additionally, from 1663 Blaeu issued three town books of Italy - of the Vatican, of Rome, and of Naples and Sicily (74, 41, and 33 plates respectively). Then from 1682, Blaeu’s heirs issued books of Piedmont (69 plates) and Savoy (71 plates). These copperplates, as with the Jansson and Braun and Hogenberg plates, finally came into the hands of de Wit and Pierre Mortier.

During the early eighteenth century in Amsterdam reprints of these earlier copperplates were still being published and Pieter Van der Aa was publishing view books in Leiden - primarily though of panoramas rather than plans.

Other notable publications of town plans included three in Germany worthy of note:
the prolific output of travel books illustrated with maps by Matthaus Merian (father and son) from about 1630 and, about one hundred years later, the atlases incorporating town plans by Johann Baptist Homann and George Matthaus Seutter.

Vincenzo Coronelli in Venice, c.1690, had published a number of localised view books and these invariably included town plans.

Over the next one hundred years each European country produced its own localised mapping. However, the collector is most likely to find plans from the following publications:

1764 The Petit Atlas Maritime by Jacques Nicolas Bellin included amongst 582 maps and charts, plans of most of the world’s major river and coastal ports.

1771 John Andrews’ Collection of Plans of the Capital Cities of Europe and some remarkable Cities in Asia, Africa and America. Some 40 plans including New York, Iedo (Tokyo) and other Asian and European cities.

Published in London from 1829, a collection of maps and some plans published under the ‘Superintendence of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’, (i.e., S.D.U.K.) - detailed maps of many European, some Asian and some North American towns.

Besides those town plans which were specifically designed as such, many plans including John Speed’s of the English, Welsh and Irish Counties, were incorporated as insets on more general maps. Despite their apparent secondary importance these are often the first plans of those cities shown and should not be ignored by collectors of town plans.

In addition to those plans issued in atlases and books, there have been from around 1750 large numbers of separately issued town plans published for practical use. Loosely folded into covers or slipcases, mounted on heavy paper or cloth, or even printed on silk, these everyday accessories were especially vulnerable, hence their proportionately small survival rate.

Celestial Maps

The study of the skies, as distinct from our terrestrial geography, is a science in itself and one requiring quite a considerable amount of knowledge to fully understand. However, despite this specialisation, maps, plans and diagrams of the constellations, the planetary systems and other celestial phenomena should be considered by map collectors. Many atlas makers included a map of the skies within the volume and these maps are occasionally available to the collector. In certain instances they are amongst the most decorative charts which may be found of any period. Acknowledging that such specialised knowledge is required for in-depth study of this field, I make no apologies for the limitation of the information within this writer’s compass.

Claudius Ptolemy, whose Geographia catalysed medieval atlas production, can also be regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of astronomy. His Almagest, compiled by 150 AD, catalogued over one thousand stars, defined in 48 constellations. This list was amended or redrawn by other astronomers – the Alfonsine Tables, Copernicus and others - but was not revised until the late sixteenth century when Tycho Brahe at his observatory, ‘Uraniburg’, re-catalogued the system.

Observations of the heavens had been made from the earliest times and with the advent of printing books about astronomy, star catalogues and illustrations of natural phenomena (comets, eclipses and so on) were produced. Many of the woodblocks of the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 deal with such subjects. The earliest printed star charts were designed and engraved by Albrecht Durer (who also produced an equally rare world map) and were published in 1515. Some seventeen years later Johannes Honter engraved a pair of woodblocks based on Durer’s, but adopted for the first time a view of the constellations as seen from the Earth.

The early part of the seventeenth century saw two publications of particular interest. Johann Bayer’s Uranometria... of 1603 is generally regarded as the first star atlas. With the revised Ptolemaic star catalogues of Tycho Brahe, the incorporation of a new lettering system for the most important stars (using Greek and Roman letters), and fine copperplates for each constellation the book was particularly popular, being revised some eight times prior to 1689.

Julius Schiller’s atlas of 1627 provides an interesting diversion from the mainstream of astronomical symbolism. Technically, Schiller’s atlas is an updated version of Bayer’s and, as such, was the best available at the time. However, in converting the traditionally accepted Greco-Roman constellation figures to Judeo-Christian characters, the inherent quality of the work could not offset the lack of enthusiasm for the redrawn constellations. Accordingly, only one edition of this work is recorded.

During the seventeenth century some magnificent globes, both terrestrial and celestial, were made. Invariably appearing in pairs, and in various sizes from a few centimetres across to as large as 60 or 70 centimetres, superb globes with printed gores were issued by Willem Janszoon Blaeu from the early years of the century and, in the closing years, by Vincenzo Coronelli in Venice. The highpoint of celestial atlas production, however, and the volume that ranks with Blaeu’s Atlas Maior and Goos’s Zee Atlas is Harmonia Macrocosmica .... by Andreas Cellarius. Published by Jan Jansson in Amsterdam in 1660, the Harmonia atlas comprises some 29 star charts and diagrams which portray varying celestial and planetary systems, orbits and theories. The format of most engravings is similar - a sphere occupying the sheet top to bottom within which the diagram or chart is positioned, allowing up and down each side decoration of an instructional, symbolic or purely aesthetic nature.

The Cellarius charts, issued in 1660, 1661, 1666 and 1708, occasionally appear on the market and can be found in superb, bright, original colour, highlighted with gold, making them highly decorative items. The later editions of 1708 has the imprint of the publishers Valk and Schenk on each engraving and is typically in relatively subdued, though also attractive, colouring. Many terrestrial and maritime atlases from the second half of the seventeenth century included a celestial chart, usually in two spheres showing north and south, and many of these are particularly attractive. Besides double hemisphere maps published by, amongst others, Van Keulen, Schenk and Mortier in Amsterdam; Rossi and Coronelli in Venice; Zatta and Cassini in Rome; and Homann, Seutter and Lotter in Germany, there are also some particularly decorative, fine, single, ‘planisphere’ maps, after Van Luchtenberg and published between 1664 and about 1710 by Doncker, Robyn and Danckerts in Amsterdam.

John Flamsteed’s Atlas Coelestis, first published in 1729, was the result of some 40 years’ observations by Flamsteed, England’s first Astronomer Royal. The atlas ran to two further editions published in London, and others in Paris and Berlin, and was also issued in quarto, as opposed to folio, format. The other major celestial atlas of the eighteenth century was that by Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr, published by Homann in 1742. More ornate than the Flamsteed work there was, however, only the one edition, though some of the maps from this atlas had been previously published by Homann either bound into atlases or issued as separate sheets. Throughout the nineteenth century most of the larger general atlases included reference to planetary and celestial charts and diagrams. However, an increasing number of star atlases, in keeping with the scientific progress of the day, were being published to satisfy the demand from a more curious but also more knowledgeable public.

One particularly attractive series of celestial maps published to satisfy this demand was that entitled Urania’s Mirror or, a View of the Heavens published around 1830. This contained 32 cards with engraved constellations, with each major star identified by a pin prick. Thus, if the card is held up against the light, the pin holes stand out as would stars in the night sky.

Road Maps

Amongst the most clearly identifiable styles of maps are the road ‘strip’ maps of John Ogilby. First published in 1675, the concept of the road ‘unfolding’ as a scroll is still followed in many route maps. Each section of the road employed a compass rose on the map to identify the orientation of that particular stretch.

Ogilby’s survey had been made between 1669 and 1674. This resulted in the Britannia, first published in 1675, which was the first work to utilize solely the statute mile of 1760 yards and maintain a scale of one inch to the mile. The one hundred road maps were, in the first edition, accompanied by text describing the roads and any features of interest to the traveller. Separate map sheets from the second edition of 1675 and others of 1676 and 1698 are identified by the addition of plate numbers in the lower right hand corner.

Although there were only three editions of Ogilby’s road book, there were various ‘reduced’ format versions published during the first half of the seventeenth century. Copies by Senex and Gardner of 1719 are frequently found, as are the charming maps from John Owen and Emanuel Bowen’s Britannia Depicta or Ogilby Improved... from 1720 to around 1764.

John Ogilby was a fascinating figure. Born in 1600, probably in Edinburgh, it was not until he was seventy years old that the works for which he is most famed now were published. Ogilby had achieved prominence as a dancer, who after an injury incurred while performing, became an instructor and choreographer. Subsequently, under his patron, the Earl of Strafford, he became manager and director of Dublin’s first theatre. During the 1650s, after losing much of his fortune during the Civil War, he turned his attention to translating and publishing various Greek classics. This publishing venture also proved successful until the Fire of London of 1666 destroyed much of his stock. Undeterred, in the years around 1670, Ogilby set about his most ambitious publishing exercise – the production of atlases of each part of the world.

Promoting and advertising aggressively between 1669 and 1676, when he died, Ogilby saw published volumes on Africa, Japan, America, China, Asia as well as the road book of Britain. Excepting the last instance, these folio volumes were translations, almost entirely of contemporary works by Dutch and German authors and were well illustrated with engravings and maps, also invariably copied from the original publications. Besides the entirely original road book, one of the most important British cartographic developments of the period - Ogilby added new information to the original text of Arnoldus Montanus’ book on America, producing one of the best records of colonial America of the time. Ogilby’s intended volume on Europe never materialised - conceivably since there was no model on which he could produce such a work - but the volumes already produced ensured Ogilby died a rich man.

Most county maps after the publication of Britannia included roads testifying to the acceptance and high regard in which Ogilby’s maps were held.

The above text is an extract from Jonathan Potter's book Collecting Antique Maps, which may be ordered through this site.

Copyright © Jonathan Potter Limited