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John Speed, Cartographer.

Later maps would of course be more accurate and comprehensive, but few would ever be so beautiful or desirable.


Speed was born in Cheshire in about 1552. He was the son of a tailor, and followed his father into the trade. We know very little about his personal life, but he was, by what accounts exist, an amiable man. His portrait shows us an intelligent face with a twinkle in his eye. He was the father of twelve sons and six daughters and moved from Cheshire to London where he continued to practice as a tailor, and meet with success. He became 'Freeman of the Company of Merchant Taylors' and a member of 'The Society of Antiquaries', he made maps for both. Through the Society Speed came to the notice of Sir Fulke Greville, later Lord Brooke, "in whose person", Speed wrote, "shineth all true virtue and high nobility... whose merits to meward, I acknowledg, in setting this hand free from the daily employments of a manual trade, and giving it full liberty thus to express the inclinatio of my mind, him being the procure of my present estate".

During this era. in 1613, and whilst on a journey to Scotland, the Venetian Ambassador Foscarini wrote the following:

"I have seen a country of great beauty and fertility and very populous. Four things in particular have struck me as being specially worthy of notice. First, that in the 420 miles that I have traversed in my journey from London to the frontiers of this realm, I have not seen a single palm of unfertile land. Second, that every 8 or 10 miles I have found a city or at least a town comparable to the good ones of Italy. Third, a number of navigable rivers including the Thames, the Trent and the Severn, which in there long courses to the sea widen a mile or more. Fourthly, I ought have said first, a quantity of most beautiful churches so numerous to pass belief. The Kingdom is most rich in the fertility of the soil and by its extensive commerce with all parts of the world".

No doubt it was the relative accuracy of Speed's maps that found them a ready market. They were, for instance, much in demand by both sides during the Civil War. Blurred and touched up, they were still being issued in the 1770's. Not only were they more up to date than the competition, they were, largely due to Hondius' skill as an engraver, more beautiful to behold. A few, had the added attraction of hand applied colour. Their main purpose then was most likely to aid in the administration of districts, rather than to navigate from place to place, roads after all are notable by their absence. Would they, one wonders, have cluttered the design, their chief attraction must surely be as decorative objects.

"The whole country", writes one commentator, "appears to him an unending pageant". There are no empty corners in his maps. They make rich use of symbolism, molehills stand for mountains in an age before contours. spires and rooftops denote towns, whilst armies bristling with spears mark the sites of ancient battles. In the seas, engraved to resemble watered silk, serpents swim, and ships with billowing sails make waves. Putti and allegorical subjects decorate his swags and cartouches. Likewise, he makes much use of the decorative qualities of heraldry. No doubt Speed hoped to flatter a few prospective customers into a purchase.

That Speed was an Amateur (in the old sense of the word: one who loved the Arts) makes his achievement as a map-maker remarkable. But they are more than mere maps, they embody memories of a distant age, the age of Shakespeare, and the sailing of the Mayflower, of Charles 1 and the 'Devine Right of Kings' - an age before the world turned upside down. That they have survived 400-odd (some very odd) years is likewise an extraordinary thing, and in itself entitles them to some veneration. Speed's maps were an important landmark in British cartography, they set a standard for others to follow.



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