Braun and Hogenberg 1572 Copyright Daniel Crouch

Braun and Hogenberg 1572. Copyright Daniel Crouch

London map-making has a fascinating history stretching back five centuries, charting the capital’s transformation over time, with the Thames playing a central role, its iconic curves a reassuringly familiar feature in the changing face of the landscape. Mapping London, an exhibition of rare maps at the Oxo Tower – overlooking the river – covers 450 years of cartography, from the first surviving map of the capital to a contemporary map of underground London.

Curated by specialist map dealer Daniel Crouch, who admits to a passion for the “unusual and quirky”, the collection even includes one map that doubles as a fan. Providing an introduction to the cartographer’s art through the ages, the exhibition offers an opportunity to view large maps not usually presented as framed works of art, along with the first three printed surveys of the capital dating from 1746, 1799 and 1827, the largest of which measures 4 metres by 2 metres.

The Braun and Hogenberg map of 1572 (pictured, copyright Daniel Crouch) is the oldest known map of London to survive intact. Remnants of an older map exist: the Copperplate map of 1559, which originally contained 15 copper sections. All but three have been lost, and two of these are now in the Museum of London.  One of the recovered panels had been re-used for a painting of the Tower of Babel. The 1572 map of London was published in the first volume of of the Civitates Orbis Terrarum – the first-ever city atlas, edited by Georg Braun with most of the engravings supplied by Franz Hogenberg. It is thought they modelled their map of London on the Copperplate, and their version in turn became the model for the next generation of maps of the city.

As well as providing a record of the area’s geography through the ages, maps have other stories to tell – some of them less conventional. A London Underground board game from 1908, aiming to publicise the newly expanded tube system, a top-secret map detailing military contingency plans for the General Strike of 1926, and a Luftwaffe map from 1940 pinpointing areas of the city to be targeted at the start of of the Blitz, are all contained in A History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps, co-written by antiquarian bookseller Tim Bryars and Tom Harper, Curator of Antiquarian Mapping at the British Library.

“London has been well served by map-makers ever since a group of merchants, who wanted to win favour with Bloody Mary, decided to make the first map of her capital city in the 1550s,” says Tim, a specialist in rare maps and organiser of the London Map Fair.  “We’ve seen changes in who commissioned maps, how they were made, who bought them, but perhaps the greatest changes have come within the last century. Cheap printing costs and near universal map literacy means that maps have never been used by so many people for such a variety of purposes.”

Entry to Mapping London, part of the Totally Thames season of arts and cultural events, is free. The exhibition runs from Thursday 4 September to Sunday 14 September, from 11am – 6pm at gallery@oxo, Oxo Tower Wharf, Bargehouse Street, South Bank, London, SE1. (The nearest tube is Blackfriars).

A History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps will be published in October and is available for pre-order from the British Library online shop, priced £25.

Want to know more unusual facts about London? Why not come and join us on a Quirky London tour?