Comedy, satire, and artistry: a spotlight on unusual maps of London

Layers of London is, amongst other things, a project about maps – and for the vast majority of maps, including those on our website, objective geographical correctness is valued above all else. But there also exists a subset of maps which abandon this aim altogether, instead targeting anything from whimsical comedy to scathing political commentary.

Decorative Map of London from 1913

The ‘Wonderground Map of London Town’ by MacDonald Gill, brother of the sculptor Eric Gill, is a lovely example of a purely comedic map, originally designed in 1913 as a poster to adorn the stations of the then privately owned Underground Electric Railways Company. Simply letting one’s eyes glide over the map soon reveals humorous and ludicrous situations: at London Zoo, for example, one child seems to be being devoured by a vast feathered bird and is depicted calling out “And I promised Mother I would be home to tea by 5!” The Serpentine, meanwhile, is shown inhabited by a red and yellow striped kraken. Such was the attraction of Gill’s beautiful map that contemporary reports even describe people missing their trains because they were so deeply absorbed in it.

1925 map used to criticise landlords

At the other end of the spectrum, William Bacot Northrop’s 1925 lithograph ‘Octopium Landlordicuss (Common London Landlord)’ is far less playful. In personifying the phenomena of landlordism and financial greed as an octopus with its tendrils snaked around Central London, Northrop expressed an explicit socioeconomic critique. Inside each of these tendrils is printed a specific landowner, along with the number of acres they owned and the yearly rents they accumulated. The accompanying text leaves no doubt about the printer’s indignation, proclaiming that landlordism “causes unemployment,” “paralyses the building trade,” and “pauperises the peasantry” – in short, it “sucks the lifeblood of the people.”

Map criticising constant repair works in London

Gracefully straddling the boundary between outright political statement and mere amusement we find Charles Ingrey’s ‘Labyrinthus Londinensis, or the Equestrian Perplexed’. Whilst masquerading as a simple children’s maze game in which the player had to discover the path to St. Paul’s Church Yard, Ingrey’s lithograph also serves as a thinly veiled critique of London’s constant repair works and general disorderliness, problems he would have experienced acutely as his Lithographic Printing Office at No. 310 Strand stood at the epicentre of the disruptions. The work’s humour lies in the fact that, just as building works are supposed to make things easier but in fact make them temporarily more difficult, Ingrey’s map, instead of facilitating effective navigation, confounds it. In doing so, it suggests a response to urban modernity which recognizes both its amusing and confusing aspects.

Map on a fan

Finally, let us consider a map which diverges in both form and function. Across the 18th century, the popularity of illustrated fans rose noticeably, with the Worshipful Company of Fan Makers receiving its livery charter in 1709. Countless examples of painted fans proliferated; most important here is one by Richard Bennett, made in c. 1760 with a map of London – following that by John Rocque from 1746 – mounted on silk and attached to ivory and bone telescopic sticks, covering the area from Sadler’s Wells to the Thames (from top to bottom) and from Green Park to Shadwell Dock (from left to right). Charmingly, the map also includes a table of hackney carriage fares so the owner could ensure they were not being overcharged on their travels through London – it combines practical and decorative purposes, as a portable artwork which could also serve as a conversation starter.

For readers wishing to find out more about maps of all kinds bar the purely geographical, the following resources may be interesting:

The Curious Map Book, by Ashley Baynton-Williams


Blog post by Jack Graveney