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Fine Art Reproductions of Historical Maps & Charts

More about the maps & charts

Up until 1760, countries such as France and Spain were in the forefront of chart and map making, and vied with Britain for control of overseas territories.

Britain recognized that accurate and reliable charts and maps were essential to the quick and safe transportation of troops and ships, for defence or for attack purposes, and in 1759, the British Admiralty issued instructions that all ships were required to make accurate observations as to the state of home and foreign coasts.

These observations were to include the sands, shoals, sea marks, soundings, bays and harbors, times of high water and setting of tides, and in particular directions for sailing into ports (or roads) and for avoiding dangers. This included the best anchorages, watering places, and descriptions for obtaining water, fuel, refreshment and provisions. Any fortifications were to be noted and described in terms of form, strength and position. Where artists were on-board ship, they should provide illustrations.

Hydrographers are responsible for mapping the sea and the coastline, and are specifically concerned with features which may be hazardous or indeed advantageous to mariners, such as sheltered harbours, safe approaches, sand-banks and depths. Cartographers are concerned with features of the land, including social and economic features such as farms, fortifications, land ownership, dwellings, inns, roads and terrain. Both use astronomic and geometric readings to afford a level of accuracy.

The hydrographical skills of Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres, and the cartographic skills of Samuel Holland and their teams of surveyors and draughtsmen combine here in many of these stunning charts, made even more significant by their unbelievable accuracy, and their beautiful and artful presentation.

These men represent the start of a 'modern' hydrographic and cartographic lineage. They were among the first to employ genuinely accurate and reliable techniques developed by men such as Murdoch Mackenzie (1712-99) in the early 1770’s. The techniques employed were subsequently adopted and further improved upon by the likes of Cook, Vancouver, Bligh, Hunter, Hurd, Dalrymple and many more, who took British map-making and indeed the British Empire to the fore.

The men who surveyed, charted and mapped the North American continent to produce these beautiful and historic charts and maps (specifically those which relate to the American War of Independence 1775-1783) were well educated and highly talented individuals. They frequently had to work under the most extreme and exposed conditions, be it weather or gunfire. Rarely were they properly rewarded for their efforts and contribution to the war effort. Most were members of the Engineers and Artillery regiments. Many of the men were of Scots, German, Dutch and even French origins.

Des Barres, summed-up the dedication shown by these men in his preface to the “Atlantic Neptune” folio (1777-84), that safety and accuracy were paramount in this type of work. ‘When the author reflects that the accuracy and truth of his work will stand the test of ages, and again preserve future navigation on that coast, for the horror of shipwreck and destruction, he does not repine it’s having employed so large a portion of his life.’

References:  G.N.D. Evans. ‘Uncommon Obdurate: The Several Public Careers of J.F.W.Des Barres’. Peabody Museum of Salem, Massachusetts & University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada. 1969.  Vice Admiral Sir Archibald Day. ‘The Admiralty Hydrographic Service 1795-1919’. HMSO, London, 1967.  Extract ADM 344, Records of the Admiralty, Naval Forces, Royal Marines, Coastguard, and related bodies. The National Archives, Kew in 2005.  A. H. Robinson. ‘Marine Cartography in Britain. A History of the Sea Chart to 1855’. Leicester University Press. 1962.