Making Maps

As its name suggests, the Ordnance Survey grew out of a military operation: specifically the attempt to control the Highlands of Scotland in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion of 1746. A military engineer called Lieutenant Colonel David Watson was charged with conducting the survey under the command of the Duke of Cumberland. The map, which also features a standardisation of spelling and naming, hangs today in the British Museum in London – a picture of how a subjugating force learns about the terrain it must occupy and then conveys that information.

In an era when cartography has become a digitised operation; when maps are constructed apparently incontrovertible digital measurement, it is hard to believe that the act of depicting a world is also an attempt to possess it. Mapping is not merely about measuring though a fact that is explored in Brian Friel’s superb play Translations.

The play focuses on the relationship between the army engineers mapping Ireland in the early half of the 19th Century and the local Irish. In the play the act of mapping is compared to the act of translating. Stuffy Captain Lacey struggles to explain in English to a group of Irishmen what a map is.

‘A map is a representation on paper – a picture – you understand picture? – a paper picture – showing, representing this country – yes? Showing your country in miniature – a scaled drawing on paper of – of – of…

The audience begins to wonder, how can you make an accurate map when you can’t even explain what one is? Mapping and naming are closely associated activities. With Captain Lacey travels Lieutenant Yolland who must standardise the names, a task which proves to be largely beyond him, largely because the history of the places he must name are so complex, so typically human.


This act of naming is as important a part of mapping as the surveying. Indeed these roles often conflict or undermine each other. Whilst map data is open source in the USA, in the UK the Ordnance Survey still controls the data. In an irony that wouldn’t be lost on Brian Friel, they also fund a research group called Vernacular Geography, which looks into how people name parts of their city. It is a way of keeping up with the citizen’s imaginative understanding of the city around them and a way of maintaining the authority of their maps.

One of the first maps that Peake I remember seeing is the one that opens JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. This map is a huge statement of intent. It asserts, what the writer Will Self has called ‘the primacy of the imagination’. The map, created by Tolkein himself, insists on the artists right to creative an entire universe for himself and his audience.  Yet Tolkein’s story reveals the tension that can exist between this grand statement and reality.

The Lord of the Rings to all but the terminally deluded is a thinly-veiled parable about the politics of a declining empire; his elves are aristocrats, his orcs are mercantile capitalists and his hobbits are the rural proletariat.  Having created such a vast map, such a vast canvas for his imagination, Tolkein is incapable of keeping the act of imagination going and must in the end pour the entirety of his reactionary political views into it.

Will Self’s Book of Dave may seem an unlikely comparison to Tolkein’s masterpiece of faux folklore but it too opens with a map, created by the cartoonist Martin Rowson. The map depicts a future England that has been flooded. This world is the setting for half of the book. It is a future society that has been extrapolated from the embittered rantings found in the diary of a contemporary London cab driver which forms the other half.


Dave’s writings are political in the sense that they turn his inner misery into a semi-political diatribe. Rowson’s map – although not integral to the text – is a joke on how we map the world through our beliefs. Yes, in narrative terms, there’s been a huge flood which determines the landscape but Rowson’s work whether he’s aware of it or not is making a satirical play on the way we map out new worlds only to fill them with our the political crimes of the past.


An artist like Nigel Peake however, makes maps that are playful, evocative, humane. Their scale and their rhythm raise these personal reminiscences to the level of art. Peake uses ink pens to draw lines that simultaneously conjure up a world and circumscribe it. He uses tracing paper, mylar and hot press 300 gram water color paper, as well as cartridge paper, graph paper and card. He works on kitchen tables and in attics. His maps are simultaneously an act of imagination and an act of ordering. His book Maps is beautiful… But then I would say that…



About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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One Response to Making Maps

  1. Pingback: Inspiration: Nigel Peake | cosmopolitan scum

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