Whitfield, Peter. London: A Life in Maps.

London: The British Library, 2006.

Now and then, I come across a book which I quickly discover must be opened with care, and not when any other responsibilities are pressing, because it will prove almost impossible to put down. Whitfield’s marvelous cartographic treatment of the history since the 16th century of one of the western world’s premiere cities is just such a book. Along with chronology, maps are one of the key adjuncts in the study of history, visualizing and placing in context the relationships between events of the past. Whitfield is a well-known expert in the history of exploration and of maps, and he provides here a guided tour of London’s development since the mid-16th century, when the first maps of the city began to appear.

They were really “views,” with elevations of buildings, and designed with a low point-of-view, not the schematic plan from directly overhead of the modern urban street map, but they get the point across: London, while already one of the largest cities in Europe, was tiny by today’s standards. The Strand was almost a country lane connecting the City of the London with Westminster, upriver. Spitalfield was still the open land before St. Mary’s Hospital, just outside Bishopsgate — which was still a gate in the city walls. And because of the Great Fire and the complete loss of the old wooden city, these early maps are our best source for what medieval London really looked like. In fact, the Fire itself gave impetus to the development of urban cartography, as an aid in rebuilding the city. In addition to early plans of the major thoroughfares, certain important buildings and districts also drew attention, including Henry VIII’s Whitehall Palace — now completely replaced, except for the Banqueting Hall, by the machinery of modern government — and the new developments at Covent Garden, Grosvenor Square, and the other elite foci of the West End which the nobility built from their estates (and from which most of them amassed enormous fortunes). The building of sprawling docks downriver to accommodate London’s vast international trade were of cartographic interest as early as 1700. The volume continues through the Hanoverian dynasty and the Victorian era, following the City’s ever-outward expansion, the incorporation of older villages, the establishment of entirely new suburbs, the desertion by the gentry of much of the inner city, the covering over of London’s numerous small rivers, and the building of thoroughfares like Marylebone Road to accommodate the boom in commercial traffic. Many of these projects, moreover, were private initiatives, proposed with profit in mind; taxpayer-funded public works didn’t become important until much later in the 19th century. Railways, factories, commercial cemeteries, green spaces, tenements, the Great Exhibition — Whitfield covers them all. And he ends with the establishment of the London County Council, the transport revolution, and the great commercial boom that followed World War II, threatening to destroy and replace what little of the pre-modern city remained. This book, a perfect combination of absorbing information and visual delight, is almost a mandatory acquisition for anyone who studies modern British history, or who simply loves London. The city’s biography resides in its maps.

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Published in: on 27 January 2010 at 10:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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