Sea Charts of the British Isles a Voyage of Discovery Around Britain and Ireland’s Coastline
By John Blake (Conway Maritime Press, 2005) £20.00, ISBN 1 84486 024 8.
According to the dust jacket this volumes takes the reader on a ‘remarkable circumnavigation, exploring, through the chart, the multitude of sea ports, fishing and commercial harbours, naval bases and dockyards, and seaside havens that have supported local life, and defended and imported for the populace at large’. This is set out in the volume in regional sections (following a general introduction) starting with London and like Capt. Greville Collins heading in an anticlockwise direction around the coast. With the author’s desire to include as many images as possible to achieve this circumnavigation in one volume it is clear that the text plays second fiddle to the illustrations. Indeed with so many illustrations to choose from, from so many different archives, there is clearly not enough room in this volume to cover every facet of maritime charting from the 16th through to the 19th century. Nevertheless the author has chosen wisely to present a wide range of charts throughout this period, along with supporting military surveys, navigational views, landscapes and thematic maps.
The author’s choice of illustrations presents the reader with plenty of examples of the different styles of surveying and charting employed during the four hundred years covered by this volume. Examples of official and private work are given in abundance, of which the former can be broken down into two categories, i.e. those of a secret nature which were acquired for secret intelligence and those required for more open consumption to predominantly assist in safer navigation. Consequently the choice of archives for this selection includes a lot of the usual suspects - The National Archives [of England], the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, the British Library, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. However, use of the collections of The Hispanic Society of America, as well those of the Admiralty Library flat document collection and a private archive is to be commended. To give an example of the type of images included in the book, I have chosen the home patch of SWMHS. There are illustrations of Eddystone Lighthouse (1759), Avon Gorge (c.1870), Hartland Quay (1812) and Plymouth Sound (1697), as well as reproductions of charts of the English Channel (1797), Lyme Bay (1579), Plymouth Sound (1693), Falmouth (1802), Scilly Isles (1792), Land’s End (c.1539) and the River Severn (c.1580). However, the Scilly Isles chart, although originally published in 1792, is in fact a ‘modern’ coloured version for commercial purposes.
The presentation of the images is a difficult one as the large format of some of the originals means that the detail is often lost when reduced. Unfortunately there are several images which fall into this category, but to the credit of the publisher those images spread over two facing pages are more acceptable to the reader. Similarly, the inclusion of a blurred image from The National Archives detracts from the overall quality of the reproductions. Other errors include the incorrect dating of a manuscript by over half a century and the accreditation of a printed chart to the wrong author. The inclusion of a bibliography and an index are always welcome to see, although a bibliography on the charting of Great Britain that does not include Robinson’s Marine Cartography of Great Britain, or any of the regional cartographic studies that have been published in recent years is surprising.
With the background information on each region touching on physical geography, trade and significant events in the development or demise of the main ports and harbours, this volume provides readers new to the subject with a valuable introduction to the charting of Great Britain. It also provides more experienced readers with the opportunity to see many quality images. With the offer of £2 off and free postage for SWMHS members this is reasonably priced for a wealth of maritime cartographic imagery.
SWMHS members can order Sea Charts of the British Isles at a discount by quoting the reference given in the printed copy of SW Soundings 68.
Reviewed by Adrian Webb
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