London maps: Heads on spikes and 'al fresco bonking'


An exhibition at the British Library shows how historic maps project power, propaganda and art.

In examples from London, heads on spikes, air-brushed slums and "al-fresco bonking" mark out the city's cultural landscape.

BBC London's Ed Davey takes a look at three London maps past and present and discovers what is left out tells us as much as what is depicted.

image captionThis was the first large London map after the Great Fire remade the city

Looking at this (above) 1682 map of London you cannot help but be impressed by the straight roads, the regal buildings and the bustling trade of London.

Just 16 years have passed since the Great Fire of London - and in the ships hurrying up and down the Thames and the splendour of the (yet to be built) St Paul's, you are left in no doubt: London is bouncing back.

Tom Harper, the library's map curator, said: "What it shows is London risen from the flames like a phoenix.

"The city is functional again, powerful and ready to go."

That the cathedral would not be completed for another 30 years is an irrelevance.

"If the map wants to say, 'London is up and running' it can hardly show a building site," Mr Harper explained. "The map is lying to us - it is showing St Paul's anticipated form."

image captionThe map was one of the first produced scientifically

But look closely and something else is not quite right.

The old London of our imagination is a festering warren of dung-filled streets, inhabited by cackling old crones and rats the size of a vigorous Jack Russell.

Yet the streets are spotless and gleaming.

And the Thames - then a noisome slick of human effluent emitting a stench that would eventually force the abandonment of Parliament - appears a tapering ribbon of cleanliness over which ships daintily plough.

"It shows a wonderful, clean London," Mr Harper explains. "But we all know it was not like that. The map excludes all the detritus of London's dirty underbelly.

"There would have been many back alleyways at the time but these are simply not shown - it begs the question of what would have been happening in these shady East End back-streets?"

'Third World slums'

He continued: "The map completely ignores the burgeoning populations moving into east London from the countryside at the time.

"Parts of London would have been similar to modern Third World slums.

"It's as interesting to see what this map does not show as what it does."

Only the rows of impaled heads along the Thames hint darkly at London's alternative history.

But if the next map of London tells a tale, it is of the rapid expansion of London: an ever-growing beast that gobbled up villages and remorselessly annexed them to the metropolis.

The biggest map in the collection predates the 1682 'phoenix' map by decades.

Yet to look at it - a sprawling tapestry measuring 14.7ft (4.5m) by 19.7 ft (6m) - the map could come from a different age.

image captionLondon fills just one corner of the vast tapestry map

In place of scientifically measured streets are symbolic representations of villages with the capital just distinguishable by a lovingly-darned London Bridge and the old St Paul's.

But the eye is drawn to the surrounding villages: Streatham, Camberwell and Hackney - or 'Hakeney', as the tapestry spells it.

We can imagine the villages of the day were slightly more bucolic than their modern concrete-clad spawnings.

And in place of the hip-Islingtonites dwelling in today's north London suburb were a population of illiterate peasant farmers.

"The maps of this period are brilliant," said Mr Harper.

"You can see how London is a series of villages which joined up over the years and became what we know today.

"It demonstrates that areas like Streatham and Camberwell were self-contained with their own culture - just as they are now."

Maps like this were the reserve of the super-rich.

"It was produced for a landowner and it was by far one of the most expensive maps made," Mr Harper explained.

"He had four of these adorning his reception room - you would see the land he owned and think, 'this guy is seriously rich'."

Mr Harper continued: "It's equivalent to expensive modern art displayed by City business people - it would probably have been more prestigious than owning a genuine Banksy now."

Which brings us to the modern day - and perhaps the most explicit collision of art and cartography in the exhibition.

image captionStephen Walter's sprawling, hand-drawn map is adorned with personal memories

Londoner Stephen Walter satirized the London-centric view of the English capital city by presenting it as an island bobbing in the sea.

"We included it because it is demonstrating a different kind of civic pride, and a real sense of belonging," Mr Harper explains.

"And like so many maps, it functions as more as art than something to find your way around with.

"The distinction between maps and works of art is far more blurred than some people might think."

The map is awash with a mass of anecdotes, personal memories and nuggets of cultural information.

"It shows where you can go to get a drink, where to admire the view and where to be careful you don't get your head kicked in," Mr Harper continued.

"It even suggests where to get some illicit sex in a park, which is another of London's old traditions!"

Common prowling points are marked "al-fresco bonking". But even London's unlovelier aspects are presented with grudging affection.

"More than anything the map shows the love of a city where the artist has always lived, with all of its quirks," Mr Harper said.

"This map represents an entire life lived in London."

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