London : A History in Maps

Barber Jacket

London : A History in Maps

Back in 2006, the British Library put on what was to become (at that time) its most successful exhibition ever – London: A Life in Maps.  It still exists in partial and virtual form on the British Library website.  “See London as you have never seen it before” was the tag-line – and so we did.  The history of our great city was explored and illuminated using the primary documents: the contemporary maps and views generated by the eye-witnesses.  Londoners flocked to it in their thousands.

The one thing lacking was a permanent record of the entire exhibition and the compelling narrative (in detailed captions, interpretation and formal identification of the material) which accompanied it.  The London Topographical Society has now stepped in and published, in association with the British Library, the full record – London : A History in Maps – the complete narrative catalogue as originally compiled by Peter Barber, Head of the BL Map Library.  And not just the words, but with every item illustrated in whole or in part.

Barber Blurb

The Blurb

Edited by Ann Saunders and Roger Cline, it is the story of London’s transformation from the walled city of the Romans to one of the world’s greatest and most enduring  cities.  It is a story told in maps.  Alongside the great, semi-official (but in some sense perhaps sanitised) images of the whole city, there are the workaday maps and plans of the constituent parts – parts both built and unbuilt – the development of the West End, the remaining countryside, the East End and the Docks, commercial London, grand and stately London, the capital of Empire, the mean and hidden streets, sporting London, commuter London and the spillage into Metroland, wartime and blitzed London – all offering an alternative narrative.  These are far more than simple topographical records.  They tell a story of the concerns, passions, assumptions, blindnesses, ambitions and prejudices of Londoners who made and commissioned them.  They are the secret narrative – the inside story.

Barber Title

The Title-Page

Maps are not passive.  There is always selectivity – both as to what is included and to what is passed over in silence.  They are statements about the past, the present and the future.  Dry record is imbued with speculation or nostalgia, or hope and aspiration.  The maps so often reveal far more about London life and the attitudes of Londoners than their creators intended.

This is great London book – one of the best of all the many pictorial histories we have been richly endowed with down the years.  Peter Barber is a master of maps as well as the subtle lights and shadows of London life.  A Gold Medal for it in London’s Olympic year.

Barber Fan

A map of London on a fan

The current furore in the book world over sock-puppet reviews perhaps demands that I should add a significant rider.  Interspersed with Peter’s narrative are a number of little potted biographies of the Londoners who made the maps – and these are, I fear, my own.  They have been judiciously printed in a different colour, signifying that they are the boring bits which the reader can conveniently skip – if only all publishers were that thoughtful.   I should also perhaps add that no royalties are involved – all proceeds to that inestimable charity, the London Topographical Society.

It’s available for purchase now – direct from the Society and (I hope) from all good bookshops and other sources.  No need to guess what anyone expecting a present from me over the coming months is going to get.  I am simply very proud to be associated, even in such a modest way, with this exquisite record of my native city.

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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2 Responses to London : A History in Maps

  1. John Windle says:

    Congratulations LW — what an honour to be in that book. I’ll order a copy for the shop today. Have you read Rutherfurd’s “London”? I haven’t but someone was raving about it the other day.


  2. ashrarebooks says:

    John, many thanks – no, I haven’t got round to reading any of Edward Rutherfurd’s epics – perhaps time to do so.


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