Early and Fine Printed Atlases

The move to the Library of Birmingham has given us the opportunity to showcase the extensive and diverse collections we hold. Through a series of public drop-in sessions we have been able to show a range of our rare and beautiful treasures.  Recently this included six beautiful atlases dating from 1522 – 1844, highlighting how our knowledge of the world has changed due to exploration and the opening of trade routes.

Ptolemy, Opus Geographiae. 1522

Ptolemy, Opus Geographiae. 1522

The first atlas on show was Ptolemy’s fantastically vibrant hand painted Opus Geographiae, printed by Laurent Fries in Amsterdam in 1522.  Ptolemy, 90 BCE – 168 BCE was a Greek-Egyptian writer, mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer and poet.  Whilst the coordinators he used to map the world were erroneous, they were still widely used until the sixteenth century.

Within just 140 years our knowledge of the world had grown greatly as the Dutch power and trade increased dramatically with the establishment in 1602 of the Dutch East India Company.

Jansson, Nouvel Atlas Theatre du Monde. 1656

Jansson, Nouvel Atlas Theatre du Monde. 1656

The Dutch East India Company had its own cartographic department and with new trade routes opening up the Dutch became leaders in mapping the known world.  By 1706 atlases had become more precise and Pieter Schenck’s atlas shows Africa accurately depicted and Hollandia Nova (Australia) and Zealandia Nova (New Zealand) appears, though neither in their whole.

Pieter Schenck. 1706

Pieter Schenck. 1706

As France aspired to play a leading role in world affairs they gradually overtook the Dutch as cartographers.  Guillaume Delisle’s atlas of 1739 relied on severe scientific testing prior to publication and his map of Russia was the most precisely produced portrayal of the nation at the time.

As Britain became a global super power and Captain James Cook explored new territories their knowledge of the world grew enormously.  Working in London Kitchen produced a range of books on many subjects including an atlas in 1799 which accurately portrayed Cook’s voyage.  He depicts Australia in its entirety, albeit its southern coastline was still imprecise.

As the want and need for education and knowledge grew the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge produced a range of volumes designed to provide up to date information at affordable prices for those who would otherwise have been deprived of an education.  Whilst the atlas was nowhere near as ornate as its predecessors, it was much more available and enabled the world to be understood and studied by many more people.

Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. 1844.

Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. 1844.

Archives and Special Collections, including the atlases, can be viewed in the Wolfson Centre by prior appointment.  Some of the atlases, including the Ptolemy shown above, will need to have a member of the Conservation Team present due to their age and fragility. Please contact us via archives.appointments@birmingham.gov.uk and we can advise further on how you can access these wonderful resources.

Phil Burns, Collection Curator

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