Women on the map: Finding women in the NLW map collections, 16th–18th century
#LoveMaps / Collections - Posted 09-12-2020
Let’s get metaphorical (and naked)
Glancing at many early maps, you might be forgiven for concluding that women have to take their clothes off to appear on a map. The usual representation of women on many maps is symbolic, with them forming part of the decorative cartouche surrounding the map’s title. However, continents and countries are frequently personified as women, often with roots in classical myths.
Philipp Clüver’s map of Europe, first published in 1647 in Amsterdam, appears in Johannes Buno’s Introductio in Universam Geographicum and is a good example. Europa sits on a plinth with a bull, an allusion to a Greek myth in which Europa, a Phoenician princess, is abducted and raped by Zeus, who appears in the form of a bull.
Often, however, the figures do not represent a specific person, mythological or historical. They are simply decorative or representative of a concept. Emanuel Bowen’s 1729 map of South Wales, for example, includes two women, one lounging at the base of the cartouche holding a cornucopia, representing fertility and abundance, along with gambolling cherubs. The mapmaker, a serious-looking male, holds the cartographical instruments.
Maps were also used to show male and female social or racial ‘types’, either as cartouche decorations or forming part of the frame of a regional map. These tended to be based more on stereotype and hearsay than reality, in line with European colonial attitudes, and their purpose may have been to demonstrate the alien nature of people in need of ‘civilisation’ by European domination.
The illustration below comes from The English Pilot (1755), one of the first English sea-atlases, the production of these previously having been dominated by the Dutch. It can be seen in the context of colonial jockeying for power in Asia and Africa and British imperialism.
Making the map
Jodocus Hondius, or Joost d’Hondt, was an engraver and publisher of maps, who worked in Amsterdam in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He is particularly known for publishing copies of Gerardus Mercator’s atlas. If you have ever wondered why Greenland often looks as big as Africa on world maps, you can blame Mercator’s map projection, which is still used almost 500 years after it was developed. He was also the first to use the term ‘atlas’ (another classical reference) to describe a book of maps.
The NLW holds a several copies of Mercator’s atlas printed in Hondius’s workshop, including this one from 1619.
The title page is adorned with female personifications of continents, in varying states of nakedness. While Europa and Asia are relatively well-dressed, those continents who were regarded in the 17th century as ‘savage’ are noticeably more naked — including ‘Peruana’, representing South America, and ‘Magalanica’, representing the mythical ‘southern continent’, Terra Australis, that was thought to exist far to the south.
The dog with the globe was the symbol of the Hondius workshop. The Latin motto ‘Excusum sub cane vigilanti’ means ‘printed under the watchful hound’ — a play on the name of Hondius.
Jodocus Hondius died in 1612, and his widow, Coletta van den Keere, herself from a printing family, took over the business. She published several editions of Mercator’s atlas, including the 1619 copy in the NLW. Her name does not appear anywhere on the title page, as she maintained the ‘watchful hound’ branding and the trusted name of Jodocus Hondius on the maps she produced.
Map workshops in the 16th and 17th century were often family affairs. Printing plates and knowledge of techniques were passed down through families, which meant that marriages were often made within the printing world, as in the case of Coletta van den Keere and Jodocus Hondius. As well as running workshops, women took part in the manufacturing process too.
One of the tasks often undertaken by female artists was colouring. Printing was mainly a black-and-white affair until the 20th century, which meant that any colour had to be added afterwards, by hand, to individual copies of maps.
Abraham Ortelius is credited with creating the first modern atlas in 1570, although he called it Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or ‘Theatre of the World’, not an atlas — as we have seen, Mercator came up with the term ‘atlas’ in 1595. The original version of Theatrum contained 53 maps, with more added in subsequent editions. Abraham’s two sisters, Elizabeth and Anna, worked as colourists and both coloured copies of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.
Colourists were not generally credited anywhere on the final work. They were seen as merely filling in the lines created by the real artist, although good colourists were sought after. So we do not know who coloured the maps in our copy: Anna, or Elizabeth, or other unnamed colourists. We do know that women were closely involved in the production of copies like it.
Show me the money: buying, owning, giving
Many printed maps were paid for by an early form of crowdfunding: subscription. Subscribers signed up for copies of the map, and paid in advance. The advance then paid for the production of the map. Maps and atlases funded like this often include a list of subscribers, so we can identify people who were willing to invest to ensure publication — and to own a copy themselves.
John Evans’s map of the Six Counties of North Wales was one such map, and the NLW holds both a copy of the map and the list of its subscribers. 280 people are listed, including seven women:
- The Right Honorable Lady Eleanor Butler, 2 copies
- Miss Brown, Oswestry, Shropshire
- The Right Honorable The Dowager Lady Dacre
- Lady Glynne, Broad Lane, Flintshire
- Miss Owen, Penrhôs, Montgomeryshire
- The Honorable Miss Ponsonby, 2 copies
- The Dowager Lady Williams Wynne
Only 24 subscribers requested multiple copies of the map, including two women, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby. There are relatively few other private citizens requesting multiple copies. Many of the other purchasers are listed in an official capacity (e.g. ‘Mr. Sandford, Bookseller’, ‘Mr. Faden, Geographer to His Majesty’).
Eleanor Butler, who grew up in Kilkenny Castle, and Sarah Ponsonby lived together in a gothic mansion in Llangollen for 50 years, after leaving Ireland to maintain their relationship and escape a convent and conventional marriage respectively. They came to be called the Ladies of Llangollen, and were well known for their unusual living arrangement, which attracted an array of visitors, including writers Anna Seward, William Wordsworth and Lord Byron, industrialist Josiah Wedgewood (who also subscribed to the Evans map), novelist Caroline Lamb and diarist Anne Lister (the inspiration for the BBC series Gentleman Jack). Rumours circulated at the time that they were in a sexual relationship and they were frequently reported as wearing men’s clothes.
The NLW holds a famous portrait of the Ladies of Llangollen, created in the 1870s, after their deaths. They refused to have portraits painted of themselves in their lifetimes. This image is based on a surreptitious sketch of their faces made by a visitor, Mary Parker. The rest of the image is entirely imagined.
Women also owned land that cartographers and surveyors mapped. The NLW holds a large collection of estate maps, dating from the 16th to the 20th century, with most surveys undertaken in the late 18th century. They were usually commissioned by the landowner, and were intended to be working reference documents, as well as to show off the extent of the estates. The maps usually come with keys to land use and field names. Depending on the size of the estate they might be large volumes, with pages and pages of large scale maps of different parts of the estate.
As the map books were intended as status symbols as well as working documents, they often include decorative title pages to identify the owner of the estate. One such landowner was Margaret Pryse, whose estate of Gogerddan (or Gogerthan) near Aberystwyth was surveyed by Thomas Lewis in 1790, at the peak of estate mapping. The Pryse family owned the estate from the 16th century until the 1950s, when it was sold to the Forestry Commission and Aberystwyth University (then University College of Wales Aberystwyth). Margaret Pryse inherited the estate from her father in 1779. At the time, this covered around 30,000 acres (nearly 50 square miles).
As well as highly decorated title pages, we can also find traces of women’s ownership of maps in handwritten inscriptions on maps and atlases. It is fairly common to find bookplates or names written inside the covers of books and atlases, and sometimes multiple phases of ownership can be identified.
In a copy of Johann David Köhler’s Atlas manualis scholasticus et itinerarius, published in Nuremberg in 1724, we find a note: ‘The gift of Mrs. Anne Lewis to John Byrne Junior 1786’.
We don’t know whether Anne bought the atlas specially for John, or whether she was passing on something she had owned and used herself. But we do know from this inscription that she was engaging with geographical knowledge and encouraging its study.
There are many more women to be found in the map collection, both visible in the catalogue, like Margaret Pryse, and less so, like Coletta van den Keere and Anne Lewis. This blog post is intended as a tour of places to look, rather than an exhaustive list.
A note on defining women
I have written both about people who are well known and people we know nothing about beyond their name. I have taken as ‘women’ those who have traditionally female names, but it is important to recognise that we cannot know how all of these people defined themselves.
References & further reading
Brideoake, Fiona (2004). ‘“Extraordinary Female Affection”: The Ladies of Llangollen and the Endurance of Queer Community’, Romanticism on the Net, 36–37
Hudson, Alice and Mary Ritzlin (2000). ‘Preliminary checklist of pre-twentieth-century women in cartography’, Cartographia, Volume 37, Number 3, pages 3-8
Shopland, Norena (2017). Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales. Bridgend: Seren
Van den Hoonaard, Will C. (2013). Map Worlds: a history of women in cartography. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Further information on the Pryse Family of Gogerddan.
Trainee Map Curator