Picturing Places at The British Library: Georgian Places

The British Library has announced the launch of Picturing Places, a new free online resource which explores the Library’s extensive holdings of landscape imagery.

PANORAMIC VIEW of that part of Ratisbon west of the cathedral, painted in water-colours by G. Scharf, sen.; 1845. Paper; 6 ft. 1/2 in. X 1 ft. © British Library

Picturing Places will help researchers interested in the Georgian period to visualise the eighteenth century more clearly. One of the leads on the project, Felicity Myrone at the British Library, was recently a King’s Research Fellow on the Georgian Papers Programme. Felicity’s project is focused on the topographical map collection of George III and this work contributed to the Picturing Places resource.

The British Library’s huge collection of historic prints and drawings is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. Picturing Places showcases works of art by well-known artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and J.M.W. Turner alongside images by a multitude of lesser-known figures. Only a few have ever been seen or published before.

This is the first time that a large and important body of such materials from the Library are being brought to light. While landscape images have often been treated as accurate records of place, this website reveals the many different stories involved – about travel and empire, science and exploration, the imagination, history and observation.

As well as over 500 newly-digitised works of art from the collection, this growing site will feature over 100 articles by both emerging and established scholars from many disciplines. As part of the British Library’s ongoing Transforming Topography research project, films from the Library’s 2016 conference exploring the depiction of place are also accessible, providing revelatory insights about the history of landscape imagery.

Moreover, the Picturing Places project emerged out of two larger programmes of ongoing research at the British Library that may be of interest to Georgian researchers.

King’s Topographical Collection Cataloguing and Digitisation

Perhaps most significantly, there is the King’s Topographical Collection Cataloguing and Digitisation. George III’s extensive ‘K.Top’ collection of around 30–40,000 maps and views reflects changing impressions of place and space across the 16th–19th centuries through manuscript and printed atlases; architectural drawings and garden plans; maps and records of military campaigns, fortifications, barracks, bridges and canals; records of town and country houses, civic and collegiate buildings; drawn and printed records of antiquities including stained glass, sculpture, tombs, mosaic pavements and brasses; and thousands of drawn and printed views.

The collection includes the work of familiar names from Hollar to Hawksmoor, alongside the works of a host of lesser-known artists and amateurs and much anonymous or unidentified material. The British Library has received support from a number of generous donors to make this material available digitally.

The core aim of the ongoing King’s Topographical Collection Cataloguing and Digitisation Project is to provide free online access to George III’s maps and views. The main outputs are the ongoing creation of detailed and searchable catalogue records on the Explore catalogue and high quality digital images, which will be available there in 2018. This project has also involved sharing our records with other institutions and initiating research projects.

A 2017 PhD placement will initiate the study of George III’s parallel collection of sea charts and atlases. This project will be known as the King’s Maritime Collection.

A pocket map of the citties of London, Westminster, & Southwark: with the addition of the new buildings to this present year 1725. Thomas Bowles. © British Library
Transforming Topography

Secondly, there is broader work on understanding the relationship between society and the landscape. This is being explored in the Transforming Topography project.

Topography is an emerging and dynamic field in art historical scholarship. The core aim of the Transforming Topography research project is to stimulate research in this often-overlooked field. It presents topographical art as complex imagery which needs to be explored and understood in relation to the shifting motives of all those involved in its creation.

Rather than seeing topographical art as marginal compared to the landscapes in oils or watercolours by the canon of ‘great artists’ or more imaginative and Sublime images, a growing number of scholars are embracing the historical study of images of specific places in the graphic arts. This is sparking a lively debate around nationhood, identity, and cultural value, or what John Barrell describes as ‘the conflict and coexistence of the various… “stakeholders” in the landscape and in its representation’ (Barrell, Edward Pugh of Ruthin, 2013).

Our collection holds the world’s most extensive and important collection of British topographic materials: from handwritten notes by antiquarians to rare first editions, extra-illustrated books and unique compilations of plates, text and drawings by named collectors. The full extent and depth of the collections are only now being properly recognised and explored.

Researching in the Round Tower: report by Georgian Papers Fellow, Rick Atkinson

Rick Atkinson, freelance military historian, was an Omohundro Institute Georgian Papers Fellow who spent last April researching at the Royal Archives. He is researching the first volume of a projected trilogy about the American Revolution and used his time in the archives to look at the role of King George III in military decisions, specifically those relating to espionage and expeditionary warfare, starting in early 1775 and carrying through the Battle of Princeton in 1777.

 

Atkinson at Henry VIII Gate, Windsor Castle, April 2016
Atkinson at Henry VIII Gate, Windsor Castle, April 2016

 

I’ve worked in some exotic locations—Mogadishu, Mali, Baghdad, Kazakhstan, Riyadh—but none more evocative than the top of the Round Tower in Windsor Castle, where I spent the month of April 2016, as a Georgian Papers fellow. The researcher’s path to this archive is steep: through the Henry VIII Gate and the Norman Gatehouse, up 102 stone steps in the Round Tower and then another 21 wooden steps to the reading room. It’s as close to time travel as I’ve ever experienced.

As an author and a military historian from Washington, D.C., I’m working on a trilogy about the American Revolution. My previous books have been about four 20th century wars, each of them expeditionary, and I’m intrigued by the challenges of waging war at great distance in the 18th century. In the official and private papers of George III, complemented by the vast trove of Treasury, Colonial Office, Admiralty, War Office, and Audit Office documents in the National Archive at Kew, the depth and breadth of those challenges comes clear. So does the extent to which the King is closely involved in all aspects of logistics, politics, strategy, diplomacy, naval affairs, and intelligence collection during the Revolution. His appetite for information is enormous. What he knows is impressive; what he doesn’t know will help cost Britain her American colonies.

The American stereotype of a tyrannical nincompoop quickly dissolves with a little exposure to the Georgian papers. I also spent time examining the correspondence and documents of Queen Charlotte and two eventual heirs to the throne, George IV and William IV. In these papers we see the worries and preoccupations of a husband and father, and of a monarch wrestling with the fretful issue of how to prepare a prince to become a king in a changing world. I also took several days to examine the military maps of George III in the Print Room and to examine some of the King’s personal holdings in the Royal Library.

I couldn’t be more grateful to those responsible for opening up the Georgian Papers and giving us a deeper look at this extraordinary period in our common heritage, particularly King’s College London and the Omohundro Institute. Oliver Urquhart Irvine, the Librarian and Assistant Keeper of the Queen’s Archive, and his colleagues at Windsor Castle, were extraordinarily generous, accommodating, and good-humored. Not least, I was in Windsor for the Queen’s 90th birthday celebration. I told Oliver that the irony was not lost on me that I had interrupted my research on the Revolution to stand on a street curb with thousands of others to sing “Happy birthday, your Majesty.”

This post and others also appear on our sibling GPP site at the Omohundro Institute.