Bartholomew’s famous layer-coloured maps

Interest in the Roman world, whether amateur or professional, inevitably leads to the various fine colour maps that depict its provinces, towns and cities and, of course, the wonderful tracery of roads. They present a world that seems a simpler and more understandable place than our own. One early set of maps which is particularly attractive formed a hard-back series known as Murray’s Handy Classical Maps. To my surprise I found that their production had a beneficial and stimulating impact upon the art of British mapmaking. The key figure in the story is George Beardoe Grundy, MA (1861-1948). He was Tutor in Ancient History at Corpus Christi and Brasenose Colleges, University of Oxford. By 1900 this academic had travelled extensively in Greece, often at great personal risk, studying and mapping ancient sites. Invited by the London publishing firm of John Murray to act as editor of a proposed series of maps of the classical world, he insisted that the relatively new method of layer (contour) colouring28 be used to indicate relative heights above sea level, with green lowlands blending through shades of brown to grey for high ground. Hitherto this method had not been widely used because of the high costs involved. After strong initial opposition from both John Murray and Bartholomew’s, layer colouring was adopted for the series. Eleven slim red booklets covered the whole Roman Empire e.g. Germania, Britannia, Italia and Sicilia, Graecia, etc. Each cost about two or three shillings (10-15 new pence). Mounted on cloth and fully indexed, they employed a delicate palette of colours and are a delight to contemplate. (Fig. 23 shows Germania in reduced form.) Grundy claimed29 that the realization and commercial success of an essentially academic preference later encouraged Bartholomew’s to use layer colouring for their distinctive Half-Inch (to the mile) Maps of Britain, making them the first in any country to use it for a topographical series of modern maps. For decades these Bartholomew maps with their distinctive blue covers would act as a popular aid to tourists, cyclists and those savouring the new pastime of ‘motoring’.

Fig. 23 – Portion of colour-contoured map of Germania. (By courtesy of the National Library of Scotland)

Travelling by road in one-time German provinces of the Roman empire, from time to time I sense or imagine echoes of that 400-year occupation. The abstract, conceptual legacies of Christianity and Roman Law, are, of course, widely acknowledged. Reminders of a Latin past survive in features of High German language such as word order, noun gender and the familiar ‘du’. There are also more general human attributes such as behaviour (Alles in Ordnung … ‘Everything in order’), an enthusiasm for spas, appreciative attitudes to engineering and technical competence and an aptitude for military organization.

A German army has long been been a formidable foe.30 During the Second World War, Eric Birley (1906-1995), eminent historian and archaeologist, was put in charge of the Military Intelligence Research Section (MIRS) in London. In retrospect, it was an inspired choice. As an academic, Birley had studied the structure and order of battle of the Roman army in depth and, incidentally, was an acknowledged authority on the Limes. From its scanning of the flow of intercepted messages passing amongst German military units in mainland Europe, which had been decrypted by the world’s first computer at Bletchley Park, MIRS was frequently able to construct a remarkably accurate picture of the enemy’s disposition, strength and strategy. Scraps of information from quite small units could frequently enable MIRS to deduce the structural organization of large enemy battle formations.

Germany still has its great forested areas, such as the Odenwald, the Black Forest and the Sauerland. Undoubtedly they still occupy a niche in the national psyche and sense of homeland (Heimat). To some, their size and solitude can be unsettling and one senses a whiff of fear in those old fairy tales of wolves and bears, wild boar and lost children.31

  1. Invented by John George Bartholomew (1831-93), the famous Edinburgh mapmaker, it was shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1878 and introduced in his maps in 1888. []
  2. G.B. Grundy, Fifty-Five Years at Oxford: an Unconventional Biography (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1945) 147-50. []
  3. T.N. Dupuy, A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945 (1977) (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., USA: 1977) []
  4. The children’s opera Hänsel and Gretel (1893) of Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) still delights young and old. []