The Art of the Hand-Drawn Map

October 16, 2014 to February 26, 2015

Matthew H. Edney

Osher Map Library 44151 - river marshes

Video introduction (courtesy of ctn5me YouTube channel)

Hand-drawn maps are works of art, both in the modern sense of aesthetic design and in the older sense of craft and skill. Also known as manuscripts ~ from the Latin for written (script) by hand (manu) ~ hand-drawn maps are, by definition, unique, rare, and works of individuals. The motives behind them are equally personal. Hand-drawn maps thus give us not only a direct and tangible link to past cultures and societies but more particularly an immediate connection with the very individuals who made, held, and used them.

For millennia, all maps were manuscripts. They were chiseled in stone, baked into soft clay tablets, and painted on wood or animal skin. Eventually, in twelfth-century China and fifteenth-century Europe, craftsmen began to ink up the surface of maps that had been carved into wood blocks and to impress the image onto sheets of paper. The age of map printing had begun. This does not mean that people stopped making maps by hand, except for designs for printed works [Section 1]. Manuscript mapping has continued to the present: most of the works in this exhibition were made after 1800 and the development of the “public sphere” with its expectations that all maps and books are printed as a matter of course. The drawing of maps by hand has flourished in situations where the profusion of printed maps is inappropriate: when people are acting exclusively or when privacy is required. Hand-drawn maps thus demand our attention as ways to investigate and understand individuals in the past.

This exhibition approaches the complex phenomenon of hand-drawn maps thematically, according to the different ways in which people conceptualize the world around them. Sections 2, 5, and 7 are devoted to world and regional mapping; Section 3, property mapping; Section 4, the mapping of places and landscapes; and Section 6, marine mapping. Each section explores some of the ways in which precise needs have led people to make and use manuscript maps, at times even copying from and repurposing printed maps. To our knowledge, this is the first exhibition to focus on the roles of manuscript maps in the modern age of print.

We present the maps with relatively little commentary. We invite you to explore their visual artistry ~ how well they inked the lines and colored areas, the aesthetic conventions they used, their sense of composition ~ and to seek for yourself insights into the people who made and used them.

Osher Map Library 44151 - river


This is the fifth exhibition mounted by the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education to highlight recent gifts and particular aspects of its collections. The first, Treasures of the Collection, celebrated the map library’s opening in October 1994 and they have since been held every five years. These exhibitions have all celebrated the generous community of individuals, families, and institutions that have given maps, atlases, books, and globes to the map library, starting with Eleanor Houston Smith’s founding donation in 1986.

On the occasion of the map library’s twentieth anniversary ~ it opened its doors on 16 October 1994 ~ I am especially pleased to dedicate this particular exhibition to

Dr. Harold and Mrs. Peggy Osher

whose vision, generosity, and leadership have been so instrumental in creating this vibrant and innovative map library. Without the Oshers, the map library would not have been able to achieve so much in so few years.

Matthew H. Edney, Osher Professor in the History of Cartography

Osher Map Library - 44151 - detail


The show was designed and curated by Matthew H. Edney, Osher Professor in the History of Cartography, with the assistance of Yolanda Theunissen, and Ian Fowler, OML Reference and Digital Projects Librarian. David Neikirk and Adinah Barnett, in OML’s digital imaging center, undertook the digital imaging of each item and the preparation of facsimiles for inclusion in the exhibition. Roberta Ransley, OML cataloger, prepared the bibliographic information. Mamiko Hirano translated Seii Sato’s world map, Prof. Imre Demhardt (University of Texas at Arlington) translated J. C. Schlönbach’s manual. Logistical support was provided by Robert Spencer, OML vault manager, and administrative specialist Heather Magaw. Camille Buch (of Buch Design) designed the poster and calendar. Stuart Hunter framed all the items and installed the exhibition; special frames and cases were constructed by John Noyes (The Picture Framer, Topsham) and Robert Carridi Fine Woodworking.

Download the postcard announcing the exhibition opening and lecture, as a PDF file.