London: A Life in Maps
Peter Whitfield
The British Library
224 pages
106 maps, 70 illustrations
Paperback, £14.99

There is no better way of finding your way around the history of a city than through its historic maps. These onion-skin layers peel back through old roads and lost rivers, through fire and conflict, through commercial and industrial expansions to show how we arrived on the streets we walk today.

This new, redesigned edition of London: A Life in Maps comes 11 years after it first appeared. Not only does it bring the story of the post-Olympic city up to date, adding the King's Cross development, it also has 33 new illustrations. Peter Whitfield is a map specialist who has written books on world cities, the oceans and the heavens. Here, his easy style puts London's maps into the context of their times, of Shakespeare, Wren, of property developers, pleasure-seekers, merchants and the slum-poor.

The earliest surviving comprehensive picture of the city, drawn with buildings in three dimensions, was by the Flemish artist Anthonis van den Wyngaerde. Made in 1544 during the reign of Henry VIII, its inclusion of the royal palace at Greenwich suggests it was a royal commission. A dozen years later the first known street plan was made. Its origins are uncertain and no contemporary print survives, but copies were made from the metal plates on which it had been etched, hence its title, the Copperplate Map. This shows pastoral scenes beyond what had been the old Roman wall that still encircled the London merchants' City, its gates closed every night. Further maps show how the second city, of Westminster, the seat of royal and parliamentary power, developed in the west, and how the two were linked along the Strand where grand houses stood beside the River Thames.

The earliest surviving printed map of London, the Braun & Hogenberg map of 1572, was made in Cologne and has a text panel about the Hansa traders' Steelyard that was sited above London Bridge. Although domestic map-makers were evident in the Elizabethan age, some of London's best known panoramic map-makers came from the Continent: Claes Visscher from the Netherlands and Wenceslaus Hollar from Czechoslovakia, for example. Hollar made an important map of the destruction of the City by the Great Fire of London, which shows
for the first time the streets of the City in plan, while the surrounding area, unaffected by the fire, is depicted with the hitherto traditional 'swarms of little house pictures'.

Part of the success of Whitfield's book is the inclusion of illustrations that show what buildings and events in the city looked like. For example there is Millbank Prison, where Tate Britain now stands, frost fairs on the Thames, and the City's seven medieval gates, now lost. There are unexpected maps, too, like the one showing the positioning of troops during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots and 'Zielgebiet II London', which directed German bombers in the Second World War. There are also ground plans of the Palace of Westminster and St Paul's, and plans for buildings that were never built: Inigo Jones' new Whitehall Palace and George Dance's double London Bridge.

The maps have been reproduced in a higher definition than in the previous edition of the book but the nature of printing breaks images into a series of dots that can distress the smallest type. For complete
clarity, the devoted reader must consult the original maps in the British Library.
Roger Williams

 

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