Travel Thursday – Frederick de Wit’s Atlas

Written by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian

In seventeenth-century Europe, no library would be considered complete without a pair of globes and the provision of up-to-date maps and atlases as a source of information on new discoveries, and at the University of Reading we are lucky to have not only a large map collection at the University Library, but also a number of early maps and atlases.

Perhaps the finest of these is a copy of Frederick de Wit’s Atlas, produced between about 1670 and 1707, and this beautiful volume is the subject of a new Featured Item on the Special Collections website.


Map of Europe by Frederick de Wit

De Wit was a prolific and skilled map engraver, publisher and seller who became one of the largest publishers in Amsterdam by the end of the seventeenth century. De Wit’s Atlas is one of a series of world atlases compiled by De Wit in numerous editions. Copies of the Atlas are held in a number of map and special collections libraries and private collections, and vary in content from 17 to 190 finely coloured maps.

As with many Dutch maps of the period, the maps in De Wit’s volume feature many elaborate and beautifully coloured decorative features, including illustrations of exotic beasts and even a winged sea monster.

The volume contains a number of maps by De Wit himself, together with maps by other important map-makers of the period including Nicholas Visscher I, Abraham Ortelius and Joan Blaeu, printed by De Wit from plates that he had acquired.

The Atlas is available to view at the Special Collections reading room on request.

The Edinburgh Imperial Atlas: Ancient and Modern

Written by Louise Cowan, Trainee Liaison Librarian

The Edinburgh Imperial Atlas

The Edinburgh Imperial Atlas


The ‘Edinburgh Imperial Atlas: Ancient and Modern’ (1859) [Overstone – shelf large 34I/10] is a beautiful collection of maps developed from, what the publishers Gall and Inglis describe as, ‘The Best Authorities.’  Unfortunately, very little information is given as to who these authorities may be or which dates the historical maps reflect– indeed only two are named: Gerard Mercator and Strabo.


Strabo (c.64BCE – 21 CE) was a Greek geographer and historian whose work ‘Geography’ diligently describes “the whole range of peoples and countries known to both Greeks and Romans during the reign of Augustus,”(Lasserre.)   Strabo drew on his own travel experiences as well as the first-hand accounts of explorers such as Polybius and Poseidonius, and earlier geographers including, Artemidorus, whose book describing a voyage around the world provided Strabo, “with a description of the coasts and thus of the shape and size of countries,” (Lasserre).

Strabo's Map of the World

Strabo’s Map of the World

Gerard Mercator (1512-1594) was a Flemish cartographer who not only introduced the term ‘atlas’ for a collection of maps but also created “one of the most influential depictions of the globe,” (Molloy, 2015), in 1569, known as the ‘Mercator Projection’.   The map is often still used today; even Google Maps uses a close variant! (Molloy, 2015)

The Mercator Projection

The Mercator Projection

Mercator’s projection was highly useful for sailors and widely used for navigation charts as, “any straight line on a Mercator-projection map is a line of constant true bearing that enables a navigator to plot a straight-line course,” (Britannica.)  However, while the map is an excellent navigational tool, the inaccurate scale of various landmasses make it less helpful as a general map of the world. For example, Greenland is particularly distorted, appearing to be larger in size than South America or Africa. (Molloy, 2015; Britannica)

Although the remaining maps are without their creator’s name tags, they are beautifully rendered and contain a fascinating insight to the historical geography of the time.  I particularly love the details on this map which show the longest rivers and tallest mountains in the Western Hemisphere:

The longest rivers and tallest mountains in the western hemisphere.

The longest rivers and tallest mountains in the western hemisphere.

Based on this newspaper clipping from ‘The Glasgow Herald’ in December 1851, an earlier edition of the ‘Edinburgh Imperial Atlas’ was marketed as an educational resource.  These comparative maps of

The Glasgow Herald -December 1851

The Glasgow Herald -December 1851

ancient and modern geography were first compiled for classroom use by French Jesuit Phillipe Briet in

the mid-seventeenth century (Goffart, 2003.)  They usually mirrored the a Ptolemaic prototype, following the ancient map-makers’ focus on showing the outlines of different regions rather than providing glimpses of historical moments, (Goffart, 2003.)  The ‘Edinburgh Imperial Atlas’ is no different with regions being highlighted with beautiful hand-colouring.

Colouring of English counties

Colouring of English counties

A particularly interesting feature of the colouring of this Atlas is the

effect of the pale green colour on the paper.  Below is the reverse side of the map displaying Strabo’s view of the world.  This effect is caused by oxidation of the copper acetate used to create the green pigment

‘verdegris’ (Greek Green) and is usually a sign that the colouring is original and was applied when the map was printed. (Meijer, 2008)

The reverse of Strabo's map

The reverse of Strabo’s map


In his creation of a special collection of ancient maps in the late sixteenth century, cartographer Abraham Ortelius declared,“historiae oculus geographia, “geography (is) the eye of history,”” (Goffart, 2003) and in collections such as the ‘Edinburgh Imperial Atlas’ it is certainly possible to see the historical development of our understanding of the shape of our world.


Sources and Further Reading:

Goffart, Walter. Historical Atlases : The First Three Hundred Years, 1570-1870. Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press, 2003. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 2 March 2016.

Lasserre François –  Britannica: Strabo

The Glasgow Herald – 22 December 1851

The Edinburgh Imperial Atlas – digitisation

Britannica: Mercator Projection

Molloy, Antonia (2015) Gerardus Mercator: 3 ways influential cartographer changed the way we look at the world 

Meijer,  Boudewijn (2008) Antique Maps – Recognising the difference between old and modern colouring 

Baynton-Williams, Roger., Colouring on Antique Maps

Travel Thursday: John Arrowsmith

Written by Louise Cowan, Trainee Liaison Librarian

Born in 1790 in County Durham, John Arrowsmith moved to London at the age of 20 to work under the tutelage of his uncle, Aaron Arrowsmith, a cartographer known for his outstanding accuracy.  Having learned the arts of map making, engraving, and printing, Arrowsmith set up his own business in 1824 and ten years later established his reputation with the ‘London Atlas of Universal Geography’.

A beautiful tome, hand-coloured and created with original materials, ‘The London Atlas’ was considered to be the best large scale atlas available at that time.  Below is a 1842 edition, which was designed with useful tabbed pages:


London Atlas Photo 25-11-2015, 16 42 18 (1)










The original atlas consisted of 50 plates of maps but Arrowsmith regularly added to the collection and as such there is no firm collation for any edition.  However, this does mean that the later editions are especially important as they include a greater number of maps, particularly of countries such as Australia.

Map of Australia (1835 edition)

Map of Australia (1835 edition)

Map of Australia (1842 edition)

Map of Australia (1842 edition)












In ‘The London Atlas’ Arrowsmith states that in the creation of the atlas he examined more than ‘ten thousand sheets of printed maps’, gained insights from surveys and also drew on the knowledge of travellers who ‘were particularly acquainted with the districts.’  Indeed, Arrowsmith was friend to a number of explorers and was often responsible for converting their sketched out drawings and surveys into more accurate maps.  This example from Livingstone’s ‘Narrative of the Expedition to the Zambesi’ shows a map created by Arrowsmith in 1865 that was based n the ‘Astronomical observations and skecthes’ of the explorer:

Photo 07-12-2015, 14 37 17

The explorers showed their appreciation of his work by naming after him mountains, plains, and lakes in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

(Baigent, 2004)

In 1830, Arrowsmith helped found the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded the society’s Patron Medal in 1862 for his outstanding contributions to the field.




Elizabeth Baigent, ‘Arrowsmith, John (1790–1873)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 7 Dec 2015]

Elizabeth Baigent, ‘Arrowsmith, Aaron, the elder (1750–1823)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 7 Dec 2015]

Arrowsmith’s Australian Maps

Crouch Rare Books