The British Library is nearing the end of a project to make 40,000 early maps and views freely available online for the first time.
The material forms part of the Topographical Collection of King George III (K. Top) held by the British Library and captures four centuries of visual impressions of places throughout the world, from maps and atlases to architectural drawings, cartoons and watercolours. From today, the images will be available for anyone to view online via the British Library’s digital Flickr Commons collection.
This resource offers everyone the chance to virtually explore, the geography, art, science and cultures of the past through the collection of one of history’s most avid armchair travellers.
Over seven years, a team of expert cataloguers, curators, conservators and imaging specialists at the Library have worked to catalogue, conserve and digitise the K.Top collection. This project would not have been possible without significant philanthropic support and we are very grateful to the individuals and trusts whose generosity has enabled us to make this outstanding collection available to researchers across the world.
The collection is a distinct part of the larger King’s Library which was presented to the Nation by George IV in 1823. As a collection of maps and views that was built during the formative period of the British Empire, it is an important resource for the study of how Britain viewed and interacted with the wider world during this period.
The collection consists of printed and hand-drawn works dating between 1500 and 1824 and covers a broad variety of compelling themes. Highlights include:
- The hand-drawn map of New York City, presented to the future James II in 1664
- Early 18th century architectural drawings by Nicholas Hawksmoor for commissions including Castle Howard and London ‘Queen Anne’ churches
- The vast Kangxi Map of China of 1719 made by the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ripa
- A set of drawings of Lucca by the Italian artist Bernardo Bellotto, circa 1742
- James Cook’s large manuscript map of the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, 1763
- Watercolours by noted 18th century artists such as Paul Sandby and Samuel Hieronymus Grimm
- Military maps of English south coast harbours including Plymouth from the 1780s, precursors of the Ordnance Survey
- Views of parts of modern-day Ontario, Canada, drawn by the artist Elizabeth Simcoe in around 1792
- The earliest comprehensive land-use map of London from 1800.
A number of maps from the collection are accessible for the public to view in the British Library’s free, permanent exhibition Treasures of the British Library, including maps of forts in North America by Mary Anne Rocque (1765). The gallery has recently reopened to the public (booking essential).
The first batch of 18,000 images are now freely available to explore via the British Library’s page on Flickr Commons, alongside over 1 million copyright-free images from the Library’s collection of printed books.
The images have been added to Flickr by British Library Labs (BL Labs). BL Labs supports the experimentation and reuse of the Library’s data and digital collections in exciting and creative new ways through competitions, events, exhibitions, collaborative projects and annual public awards (the deadline for entry this year is 30 November 2020.)
The maps will also be made available on the British Library’s ‘Georeferencer’, an interactive application that allows volunteers to turn maps into data by adding locations to digitised British Library collections, initiating innovative new forms of discovery and research.
A selection of essays illustrated by images from the K. Top collection are available on the Library’s Picturing Places web space.
Tom Harper, Lead Curator of Antiquarian Mapping, said “This is a momentous and intriguing set of early maps and views which provides multiple windows into the world of previous centuries. We’re pleased to have been able to make this outstanding collection available through cataloguing and digitisation and to enable aspects of Britain’s past to be more fully understood.”
Dr Mia Ridge, Digital Curator for Western Heritage Collections, commented, “Providing online access to these images and metadata is an important milestone for digital research support at the British Library. The collection lends itself to digital scholarship methods such as computer vision, machine learning and AI, crowdsourcing, and georeferencing. We’re also excited to learn more about innovative applications for new and emerging computational methods as researchers explore the collection.”