london: a life in maps


Some people prefer to contemplate the maps of London rather than navigate their way around its physical streets. Branwell Brontë, immured in the parsonage of Haworth, closely studied any map of London he could find. He familiarised himself with every street, and every junction, so that he could discourse freely and effectively with any Londoner passing through his neighbourhood. It was as if he had himself become a resident of the city. He never set foot in the cap ital during his short life; but he felt that he knew it intimately. It was an illusion, of course, but all maps are illusions.

The history of London may be said to unfold, map by map, in symbolic fashion. The map is a symbol, not a record or a description. It bears as much relation to the actual shape and nature of London as the sculptures of Canova or Rodin bear to the human form. The map is an idealisation, a beautiful illusion of symmetry and grace. It gives form and order to the formless and disordered appearance of the capital. In the British Library’s forthcoming exhibition “London: a life in maps”, there is a gallery of shapes and perspectives, decorous and intriguing in turn, all of them creating a wholly different London.

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