Page Stockwell Passions

Page Stockwell: Collecting Old Maps

While living in Hong Kong in the nineties, I befriended a dealer in old maps . On one of my many visits to his shop, as I was holding a 400 year old map in my hands, the penny dropped. What a wonderful way to study history, and what a wonderful and accessible way to acquire a 17th century engraving executed by an Old Master. And are there any primary sources which are more beautiful and interesting? I was well and truly hooked. I started buying maps in Hong Kong, and attended the London Map Fair in 1999. I concluded then that my recent retirement from Citibank would allow me to set myself up as a dealer in old maps and prints in my home town of Portland, Oregon. Today I would like to illustrate where this journey has taken me by showing you some of the maps in my collection.

SLIDE ONE: Sebastian Munster, FIGURA DEL MONDO UNIVERSALE, Basel, 1550.

Around 150 A.D. the Egyptian cartographer Claudius Ptolemy produced his Geography, which by the use of latitude and longitude was the first to summarize the known world in a scientific manner. After the fall of Rome, the Geography disappeared from the Western world, only to surface again in 1397 when it was brought from Constantinople to Florence. This map, published in Basel in 1550 by Sebastian Munster, is a reconstruction from Ptolemy’s text. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire closed the usual trade routes to the Orient, prompting an intensive search for an alternative. Armed with Ptolemy’s map and the accounts of Marco Polo, both made more accessible by Gutenberg’s advances in printing, Columbus set out to find a route to the Indies by sailing west. However, Ptolemy underestimated the circumference of the world, and overestimated the width of Eurasia, so that Columbus thought his voyage would be only 3000 miles.   If he had known it would be 12,000 miles, he never would have set sail.

SLIDE TWO: Sebastian Munster, DIE NEUWEN INSELN SO HINDER…, Basel, 1550  

This 1550 map, also by Munster, was the first to portray the Western Hemisphere as a separate region surrounded by water. Noteworthy are the images of cannibalism, and the flags of Spain and Portugal to signify the Pope’s division of the World between those two countries. The close proximity of Japan to America indicates the persistence of Ptolemy’s underestimation of the size of the globe.

SLIDE 3: Sebastian Munster, FIGURA DEL MONDO UNIVERSALE, Basel, ca 1571

After Columbus, an effort was made to fit the new found lands onto the Ptolemaic model. Munster’s map of 1571 illustrates this effort .

SLIDE FOUR: Daniel Stoopendaal, ORBIS TERRARUM TABULA RECENS…, Rotterdam, ca 1680

To recognize the importance of the New World, the double-hemisphere map came into use. This decorative map was printed in 1680 by Daniel Stoopendaal in Rotterdam, at the height of the Golden Age of Dutch cartography. Surrounding the map are female representations of the Continents. Between the hemispheres are two smaller maps showing conflicting theories of the Solar System, with the heliocentric Copernican model at the top and the geocentric Ptolemaic model at the bottom.

SLIDE FIVE: Abraham Ortelius, THEATRUM ORBIS TERRARUM, Antwerp. 1574

I soon developed an interest in atlas title pages. Typically the first engraving seen by a prospective buyer, the title page often was the most ornate and finely worked. As an advertisement for the rest of the volume, it also reflected the society which produced it. The Theatre of the World, published in Antwerp by Abraham Ortelius in 1570, was the first bound collection of maps of uniform size and presentation of all known parts of the world, and thus was the first Atlas. Appropriate for a Theatre, the central structure is a proscenium. At the top Europe dominates, while just below her are female figures representing Asia and Africa. At the foot is a naked South American woman, with accoutrements and a severed head suggesting a cannibalistic Amazonian warrior. The truncated bust represents Magellanica, the unexplored lands at the tip of South America.

SLIDE SIX: Gerard Mercator/Jodocus Hondius, ATLAS, Amsterdam, 1623

Although Ortelius published the first Atlas, Gerard Mercator was the first to call it such. His work was named not for the Atlas condemned to support the heavens on his shoulders, but rather for the wise King of Mauretania. Mercator’s title page of 1623 shows Atlas measuring the globe, surrounded by women representing various parts of the world.


Mercator is known for his development in 1569 of the Mercator Projection, which allows the plotting of courses in a straight line across wide ocean expanses. This map, published in Amsterdam by Jan Jansson in1650, uses this projection, and is the first sea chart of the entire Pacific Ocean. California is portrayed as an island, a myth perpetrated by an English map of America published in 1625. Based on the supposed capture of a Spanish chart, it created one of the greatest misconceptions in the history of cartography, which persisted until 1747, when the King of Spain finally declared that no such island existed.


At times I have come across maps which are not terribly important to the history of cartography, but which have great personal appeal. One such map is this one of the Netherlands by John Senex , included in his massive atlas published in London in 1714.

SLIDE NINE:  John Senex, THE VII UNITED PROVINCES [cartouche], London, 1709

In his ornate title cartouche, Senex indicates that the map is Humbly dedicated to Elihu Yale, Esquire. Yale as a subscriber underwrote part of the expense of publication.


In a similar vein, this 1823 map of southern New England was published in Timothy Dwight’s account of his travels. Dwight was the eighth president of Yale , and in a bit of cartographical hubris selected the college for the Prime Meridian, so that New Haven is situated at zero degrees longitude.

  EXTENT OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE IN 1886, London, 1886  

This map , illustrated by Walter Crane, was published in London in 1886, the 10th year of Queen Victoria’s reign as Empress of India. It is on Mercator’s projection, and is centered on what was established in 1884 as the Greenwich Prime Meridian. The peoples and beasts of the Empire surround the figure of Britannia. British explorers, motivated by ambition and curiosity, had by this time mapped well over half of the surface of the earth, justifying the triumphal note. However the overloaded coolie at bottom left highlights the burden of Empire which would be cast off over the next 100 years.