This new exhibition – subtitled “Power, Propaganda and Art” – points to the varied functions of maps. In fact, most of the maps here seem to emphasise both their aesthetic magnificence and their function as symbols of power. Vast canvases of expensive thread, continents outlined in gold leaf and portraits of kings adorning the tops of their colonial conquests need little explanation. The structure of the exhibition, portioned into “throne room”, “bedchamber” and other rooms in a royal court, adds to this effect.
Some of the pieces serve more specific functions for a would-be imperial conqueror. One British map is at pains to demonstrate the profitability of a new trade route in South America. Another, this time depicting Ireland, gives exhaustive details of British barracks dotted around the country, linked by reassuringly solid roads that slice the country into controllable chunks.
Maps from the Middle Ages and early modern maps are accompanied by a handful from the late 19th and 20th centuries. Most of these have shed any pretence of trying to provide a geographically accurate representation of territory, instead sketching ideological representations of “country” and “empire” onto the land. Two satirical images of Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli show him as “England”. First he appears royal and secure, holding on to a woman – “Ireland” – on a leash marked with the word “union”. In the next picture she strangles him with a noose of “famine” and “revolt”.
Numerous images depict Western leaders – including the Tsar of Russia and Winston Churchill – as octopuses with tentacles sliding across whole continents. The Bolsheviks get a look-in too, with one map representing the network of mine workers across Russia as red arteries pumping round the lifeblood of the revolution.
One contemporary addition, Stephen Walter’s “The Island”, depicts London as an island in the “Surrey seas”, and reimagines the city as a cartoonish satire of itself. Among the comic seaside resorts of “$loane $quare” and “Crapton”, are a few more sobering details. Walter records, for example, the vastly varying levels of life expectancy (worst: Newham (female) and Tower Hamlets (male); best: predictably, Kensington and Chelsea). The utterly dense canvas gradually reveals itself to be many layers of scribbled text and sketches which write the class divisions of the city onto its streets, parks and river.
Walter’s contemporary work arguably comments on the other, older maps on display, pointing to what they lack. It would have been fascinating to have seen maps produced by ordinary people, detailing their own conceptions of their world. Sadly, it seems unlikely that any have survived, and if they have they are not displayed here.
But that shouldn’t stop anyone from spending some time at this fascinating exhibition.
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A pick of the highlights