Tag Archives: Stephen Walter

Mind The Map at the London Transport Museum

Ever since the British Library’s London map exhibition in 2007, London museums have learnt to love cartography. The Museum of London’s Hand-Drawn London was a highlight of 2011, and now the London Transport Museum has joined the cool kids with a brilliant new Mind The Map exhibition.

This traces the relationship between transport and maps over the past 150 years or so and offers a brilliantly edited selection of material from the archives. The exhibition space at the museum isn’t vast, but the way it has been used here is superb. The twin focus is on the work of McDonald Gill and Harry Beck. Gill created the Wonderland map, a gorgeous, highly detailed map of London aimed at transport users. Here’s one of his, for Hyde Park.

The exhibition features a number of maps created by Gill – the brother of sculptor Eric Gill – and also this fascinating unfinished map of Temple, showing his working method. He begins with a serious flat plan of the city, before building up layers of impeccably detailed architectural illustration. Then on top of that go the speech bubbles, puns and references that make his maps so fascinating. Please excuse my poor photography.

In this section there are other decorative maps that were used by LT to promote different areas of London. Here is one featuring Cheam, where I grew up.

The Beck part of the exhibition is also brilliantly done given how much has already been done on the man who created the modern tube map. A personal highlight was this sketch from the London Transport staff newspaper in 1933, in which Beck gently mocks the popular notion that he got the idea for his diagrammatic map from a circuit board. He has redrawn his tube map as the interior of a transistor radio, thus creating the first mash-up/spoof of his iconic design and pre-dating The Great Bear by several decades.

Speaking of which, the LT Museum have commissioned six new pieces of art for the exhibition, and they are all great, which is quite unusual for these things. Simon Patterson has updated The Great Bear as Saptarishi, Jeremy Wood has created a new ghost map, tracing his movements through GPS and there’s a marvellous ‘Proustian’ map of London by Agnes Poitevin-Navarra.

My Ghost

Most exciting of all is Stephen (The Island) Walter’s new epic undertaking, London Subterranea, a stunningly detailed map of the London beneath our feet, executed in stark black and white and crammed with information and folklore.

When I talked to Walter a few years ago, he expressed a keenness to put The Island behind him despite some interesting related projects that had been suggested to him. I’m delighted that he has since decided to return to London mapping, as he is a master at it. I’m told he’s now working on an A-Z, which will incorporate The Island and London Subterranea.

Other highlights include a copy of the infamous 2009 tube map that omitted the Thames, a gorgeous 1932 enamel map from a station wall and a copy of Finchley Central by The New Vaudeville Band. There’s also a brilliant book by curator Claire Dobbin that accompanies the exhibition. Go see it!

Mind The Map opens 18 May until 28 October 2012. 

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Art of Mapping at Air Gallery

The Art of Mapping at the Air Gallery in Mayfair is the latest exhibition to take mapping as its inspiration. It consists of 34 contemporary works that are based on maps, some more loosely than others.  Among those familiar to map freaks will be Grayson Perry’s Map of Nowhere.

Stephen Walter, who created the magnificent, possibly definitive London map, The Island, also features with two different works, Isle of Dis and Down River.

Maps of cities dominate (perhaps a little too much), and London is heavily featured. Prominent is Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear, perhaps the first map to mash-up Beck’s Tube map and deserving of praising for that, even if I’ve always found the Bear map itself rather dull.

I was, however, fascinated by Jeremy Wood’s My Ghost, which used GPS to map nine years of movement around London, creating a spidery thread that created an approximate outline of the city’s streets.

My Ghost

Jeremy Wood's My Ghost

It reminded me of a similar project undertaken by London cab driver Richard Cudlip. Similarly, I liked Rob Good’s Two Cities, which reproduced a stencil of the south-east of England shorn of anything manmade, and mounted powerfully on stainless steel.

Two Cities

Rob Good's Two Cities

There was something in both these maps about landscape and the way humans interact with it which is best expressed through contemporary art. Many of the maps seemed to promote this similar sense of alienation with the city, making it a stark contrast to the Museum of London’s recent Londonist-inspired exhibition, which emphasised the way areas of a city can become as familiar to us as our own bodies.

Stanley Donwood’s London was a more colourful and less ambitious version of The Island, emphasising that where Patterson’s Great Bear introduced a concept others could better, Walter has created something that will probably never be matched.

Stanley Donwood's London

The last London map was Nigel Peake’s XXXIV Crossings, which was a lovely stylised look at London’s various river crossings, overlapping chaotically. Nigel has created a lovely book on a similar theme, featuring London’s bridges drawn in various ways.

Nigel Peake's XXXIV Crossings

Away from London, I also loved Susan Stockwell’s Jerusalem, which reconstructed a map of the British Isles out of recycled computer components, and Emma Johnson’s Dislocation: Time And Place, for which she had taken a pair of scissors to a map, removing streets and parks and then reconstructed it in  an overlapping 3D effect, like a pop-up plate of paper spaghetti.

The Art of Mapping, curated by TAG Fine Art, is at Air Gallery on Dover Street until Sat November 26.

London in maps

This was a piece I wrote for the January 2011 issue of Metropolitan magazine.

In July, the Mayor of London introduced a scheme that allowed the public to rent bicycles from 300 docking stations in different London. Within days, maps could be found all over the internet showing exactly where each docking stations could be found and which were the most popular. These maps were largely unofficial and all free, created by tech geeks for fun and copied to internet forums for the use of cyclists, tourists and map lovers. It proved once again that Londoners will map anything. There are maps for free wi-fi hotspots, maps that chart where the most Twitter activity comes from and maps that find the nearest toilet. One of my favourite maps is this 1970s version of the knitted football tribes of London.

 

This love of maps is engrained in London’s psyche, the result of living in a chaotic and unplanned metropolis. Two of the city’s favourite icons are maps: the A-Z, that portable atlas which even seasoned Londoners carry in case they get lost; and the Tube map, a design classic that has been copied by transport networks all over the world and is regularly ‘mashed-up’ by artists, replacing stations with footballers, philosophers, films, authors and anagrams.

In 2006, the British Library organised a ‘London: Life In Maps’ exhibition, curated by Peter Barber, the library’s Head of Maps, who thinks London’s love of maps is far stronger than anything you might find in Paris. ‘The French have a very cool attitude towards maps,’ he says. ‘They don’t, on the whole, use them and there is no comparable market in old maps to the one we have in London. You have to give away old maps of France. Maps in France are associated with authority – they were tools of administration and control. Whereas in England maps were commissioned privately and so are not perceived as being so menacing.’

The Lost Map

Barber names the key maps of London’s past –the Copperplate map of the 1550s, the Morgan map of 1682, the John Rocque map of 1746 and the Horwood map of 1829. Barber makes a distinction between two kinds of maps. There are functional maps for getting you from A to B (or A to Z) and there are maps that work thematically or artistically to present information or ideas over a cartographical plan. The thematic map has been popular in London for centuries – the most famous is Charles Booth’s Poverty Map of 1889, which colour-coded streets according to income. Another is ‘The Modern Plague’ of 1886, produced by the National Temperance League, which showed pubs in central London. These maps are designed to transmit an idea, not aid mobility, and are fascinating to study. One of the first was John Snow’s map, tracking cholera outbreaks in Soho.

Such maps are now getting easier to compile. ‘It’s said that 80 per cent of all knowledge is spatial, and you can geo-reference any phenomenon and plot it on a map,’ says Barber. ‘With digital mapping, the techniques to do this are within the range of everyone. Digital mapping isn’t new, what is new is the ease with which it can be done and the extent of the information that can be plotted.’

Simon Foxall summarised this in his book ‘Mapping London’, writing: ‘Maps have been made to do things they were never expected to tackle and, in doing so, have exposed patterns, connections and ideas that were as interesting as they were unexpected. ‘

Straddling these two types of map is Bill Visick, a former manager at IBM, who has developed the London Time Travel Explorer (TTX) app for the iPhone. This features four maps of London dating from 1746 to 1862 and a contemporary map of the city. Using GPS technology, the user can fade between old and new maps to see how the street on which they stand has changed. It’s virtual time travel.

Visick had been collecting maps of his Kensington home for years, but smart phones allowed him to take this to another level. ‘What sparked it for me was realising that the street I lived on contained the first buildings ever built in Kensington,’ says Visick. ’I was standing outside my door and thinking, “blimey, that was a hedge and that was a field”. So the first thing I did was put this old map on my phone and walk around looking at it – that became the prototype and that’s where the idea of TTX came from. It happened almost as soon as I realised the technology would allow it.’

The novelist and poet Blake Morrison has spoken about ‘our craving for interactivity’, and that is something the artist Stephen Walter is also exploring through maps. In 2008, he created The Island, a vast, exquisitely detailed map of London, crammed with cultural and political references and in-jokes. ‘People have been suggesting I do an app,’ says Walter. ‘The British Library did a brilliant browsing tool for the map and people have suggested I do something for a phone or tablet computer. I’m interested to see if there’s a way people can leave their own tabs on the map, personally configure it with their own information.’

The Island is modern in its outlook, but Walter was following a long tradition. ‘There’s a huge, strong history of map-making in London and we do like to beat our chests about it,’ says Walter. ‘It’s a bragging thing, a celebration of history and size. The Island was a spoof of a medieval map. The twist was that a lot of it was very personal and also a contemporary reaction to the city, whereas at first glance it looks like a pretty conservative world map.’

It has long been understood that the map is subjective, reflecting the views of the maker, although rarely as blatantly as in The Island. In ‘Mapping London’, Foxall writes, ‘The map, as a scaled replica of the entire city, presents a choice to its maker: not what to include, but rather, what to exclude. The mapmaker, like a sculptor, must chip away at the raw block of material that is the city to reveal the shape and representation hidden inside.’

Barber expands this point. ‘Different maps show different things and your judgment of a map depends entirely on what you want from it. In some cases you could draw a direct contrast between the map the man in the street wants and the map the expert says is best. The A-Z is a complete travesty of mapping because the streets are grotesquely enlarged and the open spaces much reduced.’

The irony of the growth of digital mapping is that it comes at the expense of the old-fashioned kind. People no longer need A-Zs, because they can use GPS or SatNav. ‘I spoke to somebody the other day, a businessman in his 60s, who no longer takes directions,’ says Visick, with one example that stands for thousands. ‘He knows he can get anywhere on his phone.’

And into this breach step the digital mappers, who offer information in a manner that all of us can understand. London can be a daunting city to comprehend, so a thematic map that breaks the city down into easily absorbed chunks of information located spatially is very helpful. As Walter muses, ‘It seems the more complicated life gets and the easier it gets to traverse the landscape, the more maps become all about ourselves.’

Magnificent Maps at the British Library

The British Library currently has an excellent new exhibition about maps called Magnificent Maps. I reviewed it for New Statesman (get me), and tried to focus on the sort of political aspects of the maps on display that would appeal to the generally Labour-supporting readers of the New Statesman, seeking any sort of diversion from the electoral massacre they had recently witnessed.

Diamond Geezer also took inspiration from contemporary politics with his review. He wins, I think.

The highlight of the exhibition for many Londoners will undoubtedly be Stephen Walter’s incredible idiosyncratic The Island, which you can study in detail here. This is a very personal and witty look at London by an artist. I particularly like the rather condescending but still satisfying comment he puts next to Herne Hill – ‘If I lived south of the river it would be here’. What finer praise could a North Londoner offer?

If you like maps a lot, you should also check out the hand-drawn gallery at Londonist. A little bird tells me that these may soon get a museum exhibition of their very own.