Friday, 27 July 2007

Speed your way home

I've always fancied owning an old county map. You know the kind of thing -- olde worlde place names printed in gothic text on paper that's turned brown with age.

Nicely framed and hanging in the dining room, such a thing amazes guests when you tell them it's 300 years old.

But I've never dared to take the risk of buying one for fear of being duped by a fake or reproduction.

For every real 17th century map on the market, there are probably a hundred that were made yesterday.

I saw one myself the other day dated 1650 -- or to put it another way, ten to five!

If I had cash to spare, I’d buy one of the ones pictured here.

They’re by John Speed, one of the world's most famous cartographers, and the big one shows the "Countye Palatine of Chester" as it looked in 1627.

Examine it carefully with a magnifying glass and you can see my house. No, only joking!

However, you can see the village where my house stands and, interestingly enough, nearer to the border with Shropshire, the place where mapmaker Speed was born.

Yes, it's true. John Speed was born in Farndon, Chester, in 1552, the son of a tailor (and not a lot of people know that). Whether Farndon makes much of the fact, I have no idea, but truth is, he wasn't there long.

After following his father into the same profession, Speed moved to London and at the age of 18, was admitted to the freedom of the Merchant Tailor's Company. He married two years later and he and his wife were blessed with 12 sons and six daughters.

Speed was fascinated by history and in London he became a member of the Society of Antiquaries which clearly fuelled his interest in genealogy and cartography.

He produced his first work, a wall map of Canaan in Biblical times, which came to the attention of Sir Fulke Greville, the first Lord Brooke and friend of Sir Philip Sydney, one of the leading members of the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

Given Greville's patronage and through him an honorary appointment to the Customs Service, Speed was able to devote his time to map making.

Working from the London Custom House, Speed dedicated his time to developing an extravagant series of maps detailing the counties of England and Wales.

He subsequently made an extensive tour throughout the British Isles, during which he recorded in meticulous detail each county, highlighting its cities, towns, important buildings and major rivers.

The resulting maps are believed to be the earliest recorded plans for many of the towns featured.

The first appeared in 1608, and by 1612, all 67 maps were published in atlas form under the title The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain. It was a huge success, with editions selling out over the next hundred years.

Speed also produced maps of the countries of the world in an atlas entitled A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, published in 1627. It was the first such work to be published by an English man.

Speed died on July 28, 1629, at the age of 77, by which time he had gone blind. He is buried at the Church of Saint Giles, Cripplegate, where a monument erected to him comprises a bust with inscriptions.

Today, Speed's maps are collected not only by historians interested in their record of place names and boundaries but also by art lovers drawn by their intricate and artistic beauty.

This is down to the skill of the Dutch printer Jodocus Hondius, whose Amsterdam works produced the magnificent engravings from which Speed's maps were printed.

Throughout his travels, Speed collected coats of arms, portraits, drawings of antiquities and even rubbings of coins which were passed to Hondius and their designs incorporated into the decorative edges of the maps.

Such grand productions needed successful publishers in order to capitalise on their popularity. For this Speed turned to John Sudbury and George Humble, a partnership established in 1599 in premises near the Royal Exchange.

The arrangement took Sudbury and Humble from being London's largest and most successful print sellers to the first English company to specialise in the publication of cartography.

Prices for Speed maps vary today. His county maps can be purchased for between £200 and £1,500. A copy of Speed’s New and Accurate map of the World, published in 1651, fetched £3,300 recently, despite being stained, slightly faded and torn, while complete atlases sell for £20,000 to £30,000.

Pictures show:

John Speed
John Speed’s map of The Countye Palatine of Chester – yours for £1,300
Speed maps of Middlesex, Sussex and “Kent with her Cities”. Each has an auction value of £300-400



Anonymous Janet said...

So right you are about reproductions, but even worse are the stolen maps, often razored out of plat books etc held in university and public libraries around the world. These may appear at antiques shows and markets as well as on eBay.
It has long been a practice to remove plates from a book to frame and resell, but to rip out for profit from an institution is just theft!

23 May 2008 at 08:35  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Thanks for pointing this out. The tragic thing is that these thefts can go unnoticed for so long. Thanks also for the mention on

23 May 2008 at 08:44  

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