Treasures from the London Library: Irresistible beauty
Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros reveals the tragic fate of Christopher Saxton's beautiful and deeply influential sixteenth-century Atlas of the counties of England and Wales.
Books are often vandalised and mutilated by those who find their content offensive. But they are sometimes also taken apart by those who find parts of them irresistibly beautiful.
In 1573, Christopher Saxton, a Yorkshire map maker born around 1542, was commissioned by the lawyer, MP, philanthropist, patron and administrator Thomas Seckford to produce a set of maps of England and Wales. The enterprise was enthusiastically supported by Elizabeth I, who issued Saxton with a number of letters and passes to guarantee the full co-operation of the locals wherever his surveys took him. The Queen also granted him a decade of exclusive rights to publish the resulting atlas. The royal protegé produced a book of maps charting the whole of England and Wales, the like of which had never been seen before, and he was handsomely rewarded for his work.
Saxton’s Atlas of the counties of England and Wales, printed in London in 1579, consists of thirty-four county maps, introduced by a map of England and Wales. It was never printed in a standard edition and the preliminary pages varied from one copy to another. However, most editions include a stunning frontispiece depicting the work’s royal patron wearing a robe of bright red velvet and adorned with brilliant crown jewels coloured with gold pigment. The hand-coloured maps that follow the frontispiece are equally beautiful; they are also very accurate. Each engraved map was printed on a single sheet, hand-coloured, folded in the middle, and then attached to a stub in the book. But it is perhaps this fatal combination of beauty, invaluable accuracy and ease of removal that proved the downfall of the atlas. Cartographically, the accuracy and detail of these maps had a long-lasting influence, not only on English map makers, but was also imitated by the likes of Jan Blaeu. Saxton’s work was not replaced as the canon for maps of England in Wales until the 19th century by the Ordnance Survey. His atlases, however, have suffered a harsher fate and very few perfect copies have survived.
The London Library’s copy was first owned by Sir Henry Maynard (1547-1610), administrator and secretary to William Cecil, first Baron Burghley. Lord Burghley was also Thomas Seckford’s master. He had a great interest in and knowledge of cartography and annotated Saxton’s atlas. The Maynards settled in Burghley’s Essex, building a manor in Easton. The book was handed down through the family and finally received the addition of a bookplate bearing the name Charles Lord Maynard (1690-1775). The next recorded owner is the book collector Richard Heber (1774-1833), half-brother of the bishop of Calcutta, Reginald Heber. After Heber’s death, the atlas was auctioned at Sotheby’s and was bought by the merchant and antiquary Joseph Brooks Yates (1780-1855).
His grandson, the book collector and proprietor of the Pall Mall Gazette, Henry Yates Thompson (1838-1928) inherited the atlas in 1857, but two pages, including the glorious frontispiece, were missing. As Yates Thompson observed, the town of Easton on the map of Essex (now also missing) ‘was much rubbed by finger marks of the Maynard family’. In 1885, Yates Thompson was fortunate enough to come across another copy, this time a perfect one, which he bought from the antiquarian bookseller and publisher, Bernard Quaritch. With Quaritch’s help, he used this perfect copy to make facsimiles for the incomplete copy that he had inherited. In a manuscript note written on the book’s endpapers and dated 1887, Henry Yates Thompson describes how he paid a Mr. Sadler two guineas to have the facsimiles coloured. He goes on to say that the facsimiles 'are not readily distinguished from the originals, unless by the colour of the paper'.
The volume, with its missing pages and remarkable, but perhaps by today’s standards invasive Victorian repairs, was given to the Library in memory of Mrs. Yates Thompson in 1941.
Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros is head of Bibliographic Services at the London Library.
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