George III was very interested in maps, collecting them in huge numbers, along with views, architectural drawings and miscellaneous printed ephemera. George IV, by contrast, was not. He dearly wished to convert his father’s library at Buck House into a ball room and very quickly began to dispose of the collection. Fortunately they were taken up by the British Museum and in 1973 ended up in their logical home: the British Library. The total collection amounts to over 60,000 item of which around 1,200 are directly London-related. While the British Library possesses 4.5 million maps in total, this is a very shiny jewel indeed.
The collection includes all the great maps of London in the original and because they were acquired through royal patronage and acquisition, they are best quality and in a very many cases, unique. Gems include original drawings by Robert Adam of the Adelphi and all the London churches by Hawksmoor. These represent the tip of an iceberg of drawings and plans from the leading architects of Georgian London. There are other etchings, engravings and views. Being famously miserly, George would encourage his buyers to pick up unsold items at auction. The result is that the collection also contains a large amount of ephemera, unloved in their day by connoisseurs but of massive value to the modern historian.
Led by BL’s Head of Map Collections, Peter Barber, the department recently embarked on a project to digitise King George III’s Topographical Collection (K Top for short) in its entirely. With only their own staff to call upon and the work being too technical for volunteers, Unlock London Maps is expected to take at least four years but will be released online as it goes. Some, like those in this post, are already available. As a lover of maps, the prospect of further releases is a delicious one.
But the project needs to raise funds. The £100,000 overall target is a vital yet realistic number in this day and age and we encourage you to make a donation, large or small. Please do so via the Unlock London Maps Page.
We’ve organised a behind the scenes visit of BL’s Maps Collection on 12 June to view some of this treasure. It will be led by Peter himself. All of the £15 ticket money will go towards the fund. Members only, I’m afraid. If that’s you, make your booking here.
Here are a few more lovely examples from K Top.