Dan McCannell charts how and why the popular bird’s-eye picture map suddenly gave way to the overhead view we use today.

Oxford 1578 map by Ralph AggasReading Ralph Aggas’s spatially flawed 1578 map of Oxford has been liked to flying slowly over the city in a balloon

By Dan McCannell

From the dawn of British cartography in the sixteenth century, maps were made in civilian and military forms, separate and distinct from one another. Civilian maps favoured the bird’s-eye view, while military ones were constructed with a strict ‘ichnographic’ viewpoint from directly above – the norm today.

Maps of Oxford illustrate this distinction, which persisted into the eighteenth century. Victorian scholar Herbert Hurst compared the experience of reading Ralph Aggas’ 1578 map of Oxford to flying slowly over the city in a balloon, a wonderful way of describing the experience of the bird’s-eye view. This is completely different from Captain Sir Bernard de Gomme’s carefully sketched 1:10,886 ichnographic, top-northwards plan of the city under siege, completed in 1646 as the Civil War raged.

More intriguing still is the role of Oxford in solving the curious paradox of why the civilianisation of mapmaking led almost immediately to the near-universal adoption of the ichnographic perspective that had been the hallmark of the military map. When the civilians won control of the profession, why did civilian aesthetics lose?

Part of the key to why the aesthetic split had taken place at all lies in the word ichnographia, believed to have been coined by Vitruvius – the best-known architectural thinker of classical antiquity, and an artillery officer tasked with the design, maintenance and deployment of ballistas and other giant siege-warfare machines of that pre-gunpowder era. Tellingly, the oldest instance of the adjectival form ichnographic in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1695, is in the context of the ‘projection of any regular fort’. To put it crudely, battering an enemy settlement into submission was ‘architecture in reverse’.

De Gomme map of Oxford 1646Bernard de Gomme’s 1646 plan of Civil War Oxford epitomises the top-down view as a military tool

It stands to reason that military plans of towns and camps would take on the quality of gigantically elaborate architectural drawings. Meanwhile non-military maps, like paintings, were free to focus on their subjects’ socio-economic, political, and aesthetic importance: to be, in the words of Roger Kain and Richard Oliver, ‘paper surrogates for the townscape’, and decidedly not ‘an aid for those out and about on the ground’.

Thus, at the end of the Elizabethan period, the ichnographic perspective – like the use of a strict scale – was effectively limited to maps of fortifications and militarily significant seaports; and over the course of the seventeenth century, the distinctive civilian and military mapping traditions continued to evolve side by side, with neither yielding to the other in any point of accuracy or skill.

In Oxford’s case, it is instructive to compare de Gomme’s 1646 map against the elaborately pictorial 1:3,265 effort by David Loggan, published by the University in 1675. Though very up-to-date with regard to features on the ground, including the Sheldonian – where it would have been printed – Loggan’s map preserved the bird’s-eye, south-at-top format that had dominated civilian maps of the city made over the preceding hundred years. Remarkably, as late as 1728 Robert Whittlesey would engrave a smaller, 1:2,520 version of Aggas’ spatially flawed but jolly romantic map of 1578, the one Hurst compared to a balloon flight. Even at the start of the reign of King George II, many non-military maps retained an impressionistic, non-scientific character.

Loggan 1675 map of OxfordLoggan’s pictorial Oxford of 1675 typifies the bird’s-eye view that was once standard in civilian maps

But something changed, and within a few years civilian maps adopted the plan view, the utilitarian approach of getting from A to B, that underpins mapping right up to Google. The last battle on British soil was fought in 1746, and though foreign invasion remained a threat, a Europe-wide shift in doctrine away from sieges and toward engagements in open country meant that many fewer military maps of British towns were produced from this point onward. Civilian cartographers soon outnumbered their military counterparts – a process not unconnected to the emergence by 1771 of the new profession of ‘civil engineering’, so named specifically to distinguish it from its military forebear.

One lonely forerunner of this process of transformation was a splendid 1:1,200 ichnographic map of London created in the 1670s by John Ogilby, inventor of the road map, dancing master, lottery winner, sometime actor and publishing impresario. Ogilby was responsible for the first ichnographic map of Oxford in a non-military context, albeit at a tiny scale within his famed road book, Britannia (1675). But Ogilby had served as a soldier in the Duke of Buckingham’s ill-fated Île de Ré expedition of 1627, as well as in the Royalist cause in 1640s Ireland (under future Oxford University chancellor the Earl of Ormonde). He might simply have seen himself as an old soldier.

More significant is a curious project of Oxford University Press called Oxonia Depicta, half a century later in 1726 – a date that signifies the start of the ichnographic mapping revolution and the demise of the bird’s-eye view approach.

Both the magnificence and the influence of this royal-folio-sized tome, which was finally published in 1733, would be hard to overstate. A single gilt red-morocco-bound copy once owned by the Duke of Hamilton achieved a price of £8,125 at Sotheby’s in 2009.  The project brought together a Welsh civilian surveyor named William Williams with a talented engraver from a London naval family, William Henry Toms.

Green 1762 Oxford mapThe rise of tourism spurred the civilian use of the top-down view in maps like Green’s Oxford from 1762

Hailed as one of Britain’s top practitioners of the art of engraving in 1726, and perhaps selected to work on the Depicta for that reason, Toms would go on to create the largest map of America to be printed in colonial times, and develop what the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls ‘a particular expertise in engraving maps and plans, many clearly intended for naval instruction and aimed at naval buyers’. It adds: ‘His output in this field was prolific and his naval connections allowed him to respond rapidly to contemporary events.’

With Toms at the helm of Oxonia Depicta, the 150-year-old Aggas–Speed–Hollar–Merian–Loggan–Lea–Whittlesey consensus that Oxford should be mapped using a bird’s-eye perspective suffered a sudden death. Though individual buildings would still be presented as bird’s-eye views on their own pages, the book’s 1:3,168 map of the city itself was rigidly ichnographic.

Certain University members and other Oxford residents had always taken an interest in advanced cartographic techniques. Christopher Wren, for example, was keenly concerned with surveying before his architectural career began, in his guise as Oxford’s Savilian Professor of Astronomy. And the University had already, by Wren’s time, produced a string of giants in the fields of geography and cartography that included Humphrey Lhuyd (1527–1568) and Robert Hues (1553–1632), both of Brasenose; Richard Hakluyt (c. 1552–1616) and William Camden (1551–1623), both of Christ Church; and John Norden (1547–1625) of Hart Hall.

Theodolite illustration from 1702Unfortunately, the inception of the Williams–Toms collaboration remains shrouded in mystery, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that it was the Oxford University Press that brought these two very different men together. In any case, the University’s status as a centre of Welsh learning in the early modern period should be obvious from the above list of scholars alone – in which light Williams’s arrival on the scene starts to look less than random.

With regard to the ichnographic shift, is likewise difficult to identify paths of cause and effect with any certainty. However, the 1720s and ’30s can be seen as the ‘big bang’ moment for the British tourist industry. Though there had always been individual tourists, notably Celia Fiennes in the seventeenth century, it was Daniel Defoe’s A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, Divided into Circuits or Journies (three volumes, 1724–27) that effectively codified a touristic approach to the domestic scene. Second only to Robinson Crusoe (1719) as Defoe’s most lucrative project, the Tour as expanded by Samuel Richardson would be republished five times between 1738 and 1762.

It is this ‘touristic moment’ that may hold the key to our cartographic paradox. For, while the traditional bird’s-eye view arguably provided the best vicarious experience of a city that one wasn’t actually planning to visit, an ichnographic treatment was more suitable for those who actually needed to get from A to B on foot, as the military had always known.

So, as movement about the country became steadily cheaper, faster and less dangerous in the Georgian era of turnpikes and canals, there was an important transition from ‘armchair tourism’ to what might be called ‘muddy-boots tourism’; and the fundamental change in the perspective used in civilian mapmaking both reflected and encouraged this.  We should not be surprised, then, that the ichnographic perspective was adopted by B Green for the city map in A Pocket Companion to Oxford (1762). The first, or at any rate oldest surviving, street map in a guidebook to any British town or city, its debt to Williams and Toms – and thus to Oxford University – is profound; and it bears witness not merely to the civilianisation of cartography, but to the central role that tourism has played in the construction of the post-Enlightenment world.

Why are maps cool again?

In the spring of 2010, I was having a drink in the Wheatsheaf with an old friend and Lincoln College alum who writes and teaches about cartographic history.  He told me a woman had recently approached him about taking one of his classes, asking, ‘Will it be okay that I can’t read a map?’  Amid the laughter, the lesson we took from this was that an entire ‘You Are Here’ culture, articulated by sat-navs and other mobile devices, was rapidly erasing a set of skills that had been considered fundamental to being a grownup since beyond the horizon of living memory.  I came away thinking that, to the fabled ‘man in the street’, maps could soon be defunct – in spite of, or perhaps because of, the much-vaunted globalisation of nearly everything.

Oxford on Google MapsDigitisation now delivers ichnographic maps of Oxford — and everywhere else — to our mobile devices

The lesson I perhaps should have learned from my friend’s anecdote was that, despite having fallen off the edge of map-use as a personal skill, the woman still wanted to take his class.  For, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, old maps became cool.  We should have seen it coming.  After all, mechanical wristwatches were just ‘wristwatches’ until the quartz/digital revolution of the early 1980s inspired millions of us to circle the wagons around them.  My relatively short lifetime has likewise witnessed unexpected revivals in the use of gliders, balloons, and dirigibles, decorating with antiques, making ice cream and butter at home in wooden churns, hand tailoring, and pesticide-free agriculture.  That most hyper-modern of technologies, the internet, has facilitated a revival in affordable bespoke glove- and boot-making, amid a wider ‘maker movement’, peer-to-peer lending, and professional-services swapping that collectively amount to a restoration of the barter system, at least for some individuals.  For nearly every technological great leap forward, certainly, there has been an equal and opposite reaction, hyped as ‘retro’ or decried as ‘Luddite’ but often underpinned by sound environmentalist principles, or aesthetic ones, or cost considerations, alone or in combination.

And yet, the current revival of interest in ink-and-paper maps and their makers, among people of all ages, goes well beyond this.  Speaking as a collector, I have seen old maps emerge steadily over the past two decades from a monomaniacal coins-and-stamps atmosphere, in which ‘advanced’ publications on the subject often seemed to cover the same map over and over again (in endless processions of miniscule differences), while supposedly ‘introductory’ books covered such an array of map scales, projections, time periods, and territories as to be simply bewildering.  In this sense, books about maps have both benefited, and benefited from, the transformation of map collecting into something much more recognisably related to the art-and-antiques world in which it probably always belonged.

Another factor in the newfound popular interest in old maps, when it comes to maps of cities in particular, is that the world since 2007 has had a majority-urban population for the first time in its history, as C.J. Schüler pointed out in Mapping the City from Antiquity to the 20th Century (2011, p. 8).

However, cities are not simply growing; they are getting smarter. The next step, abetted by the ‘internet of things’, will involve geo-locational information being communicated collaboratively and ever more seamlessly between and among phones, vehicles, sensor networks, and even clothing. But for anyone who prefers retro backlash, bird’s-eye views of modern Oxford, printed on paper, can still be obtained from coin-operated machines at the railway station.

Dan MacCannell’s book Oxford: Mapping the City is published by Birlinn, under managing director Hugh Andrew (Magdalen, 1980). Images reproduced courtesy of Bodleian Libraries, the National Library of Scotland and Google Maps.


By Peter Hulse

The orientation of an ichnographic map is wholly arbitrary; by always showing north at the top, a degree of standardisation is assured. The bird's-eye view will have a varying orientation depending upon the objective and aesthetics of the map-maker; this makes it more difficult for the stranger to absorb its import.

By Douglas A Johnston

Map making, like design in general, has always been about solving problems. This brilliantly illustrates the point.

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