There were no maps of London before about 1550 – that is to say, there were no maps of London in the way that we know them today. The reason why is simple to explain – printing was not invented until about 1450. One of the earliest presses was invented by Gutenberg, in Germany. Early books were publications like the Bible. It took several decades before any serious printing started up in London. Any printed illustrations were usually woodcuts and they were not like the fine steel engraving that we have all seen, they were just simple pictures with rather chunky lines.
The first map of Central London (including Westminster, Strand, Fleet Street, City of London and the north bank of the Thames) was produced around 1550. It was engraved on large sheets of copper, showing great detail. We knew nothing about that map until the 1970s when one copper plate was discovered in somebody’s house! It was examined by experts at the London Museum. It was estimated to be one of a set of 24 plates, laid out in a grid of six plates horizontally by four vertically. A monograph was published by the museum and a copy of the booklet found its way to Yorkshire where a reader realised that also had another plate. The two copper plates are now safely on display in the Museum of London.
In the late 1980s, a diligent German researcher realised that they had found the third plate from the same map, locked away in a museum collection. It was lent to the Museum of London for about three months and put on show.
Frustratingly, only three plates from that detailed map have ever been found. That, however, is not the end of the story. A map of London does exist and it closely resembles the ‘copper-plate’ map. Its scale is slightly smaller and it was produced as a woodcut, using eight blocks – four on the top row and four more below. Being produced from wooden blocks, the detail is not so fine but it is still an interesting map. The blocks for this map are not known to exist but there are three paper copies in existence, two in London and one in Cambridge. The map was probably published about 1561. None of the paper copies of the map from this date is known to exist either. The paper copies that do exist were from a reprint made just after 1600 from wooden blocks that had become damaged. All three paper copies have small parts missing along some of their edges. In the 18th century, the map was attributed to a mapmaker called Ralph Agas. It is now known that he was not the originator but, because we do not know who made the woodcut, we often refer to it as the ‘Agas map’ for convenience.
A third map, also copied from the 1550 copper engraving, also exists. It is a single sheet at a much smaller scale which was engraved by Braun and Hogenberg, in Germany, in 1575.
The only reasonably complete large-scale map, therefore, from the 16th century is the ‘Agas map’. Sadly, most of ‘missing’ parts run along the centre of the whole map and therefore the aesthetic result is rather like looking at Constable’s ‘Haywain’ with a narrow piece torn from the centre of the painting. This obviously annoyed many Victorian engravers as much as it does readers today. One famous Victorian engraver, called Weller, decided to redraw the whole map and ‘create’ the missing pieces. He also added colour to the map, giving it that something ‘extra’.
The small version at the top of this article gives some idea of the ‘Agas facsimile’. It certainly makes understanding the map much easier and, of course, is an attractive work in its own right.