Map Collecting is a Work of Art

By Bernard J Taylor

Many of us have strange hobbies and pastimes. One such British tradition is collecting, items such as fine pieces of porcelain, art treasures, furniture, thimbles, bookmarks or even beer mats. In fact a local radio station recently discovered a lady in the West Midlands who collects plastic bags.

One of my particular favourites is old ordnance survey maps. I would say, without fear of being called sexist or politically correct, this pastime is favoured more by the male gender rather than the ladies. I have always been fascinated by the historical comparison that can be made from two maps of the same area but with perhaps a sixty to eighty year difference in age. I am regularly visit antique shops and bookshops in the hope of discovering a little gem. Usually buried in an old cardboard box at the back of the shop with the owner attaching little significance to their presence.

A few years ago I purchased about 170 maps from a dealer in Bristol. Quite by chance I enquired as to how he dated his maps, his reply was "The Bible" by John Paddy Browne. When I discovered that "The Bible" was in fact entitled, "Map Cover Art", I purchased a copy and since then I have not looked back. The back is indeed a most unusual way of dating ordnance survey maps by using the design of the front cover. Below you will find a photo of the book's cover together with a few three front covers from maps dating between 1916 and 1932.

Map Cover Art 1919 Map
1932 travel map 1932 Street Map

I will let J P Browne explain in his own words

Glance along the "Travel" shelves of any large newsagents and you will see rows of Ordnance Survey maps in bright yellow or pink or green or blue covers, with their sunny photographs of town and country views together with their eye-catching trade names.

There's Landranger and Pathfinder, Routemaster and Outdoor Leisure etc. etc. - The list seems endless and a little confusing. The Ordnance Survey produces so many different maps for so many different kinds of user that some easy means had to be found to help the customer find the right map for his need. There's no point, for example, in selling a motoring map to someone who wants to spend a few days hiking over Dartmoor or in the Lake District.

So you aim for the colour code that suits your needs: green if you're looking for rights of way; blue if you want to motor long distances; yellow if you want a national park or a place of outstanding natural beauty and so on.

In days gone by, the OS had a different way of getting the right map into the right hands. It added a cover painting to the map, which showed the customer what sort of map he/she was buying.

A picture of a cyclist would indicate that here was a map useful to cyclists. Motorists would find a painting of a car - usually a sleek open tourer in those days - and hikers would find a cover design showing a handsome rambler with a knapsack on his shoulder, his sleeves breezily rolled up, his pipe clenched in his firm, manly mouth.

Sometimes more than one of these types would be combined in a single map cover design, and there is a famous cover showing the hiker, a car full of travellers, a group of cyclists and a bus excursion stopped outside a village pub! This particular cover has been described as "the high art of map selling" because it was aimed at a whole range of users and the cover painting had placed them all into one natural setting.

The cover was the work of Ellis Martin, an accomplished commercial artist who, before the First World War, worked as freelance for firms such as Selfridges and Whiteley's in London s well as W.H. Smith and other railway station booksellers. He produced posters and advertising designs for these companies. When he went to France with the Royal Engineers and the Tank Corps, it was as an artist sketching the landscapes over which the army and its heavy vehicles would have to move.

When the war ended, Martin was invited to join the Ordnance Survey. The period immediately after 1918 saw a massive national upsurge in cycling, rambling and railway excursions and - for those who could afford it - motoring. Commercial and private map publishers were selling millions of maps to help people find their way around the highways and byways of Britain. Most of these maps were cheap versions of Ordnance Survey originals, pirated in the day before copyright controls came into effect.

The OS wanted to capture the market in leisure and tourist mapping, and Ellis Martin was the man who was going to do it for them. His first map cover designs appeared in 1919 and, within a year, the OS was reporting the highest map sales in its history.

Ellis Martin was born in Plymouth in 1881. He joined the OS at their Southampton headquarters as one world war ended and he would remain there until the next world war began. In those twenty years he made the Ordnance Survey a household name in Britain and he made Ordnance Survey maps as British as roast beef on Sundays.

No other country has spent so much time and effort on map cover design as did the Ordnance Survey. It raised what was a crude and primitive selling ploy to a distinguished art form. The covers painted by Ellis Martin are icons of a way of life, which has long passed us by. They are unique to Britain, and no similar tradition of commercial art exists anywhere in the world.

The poet and sculptor Sven Berlin has described the Ordnance Survey maps of the inter-war years as "old friends who guided you to unknown places". That is exactly what they were - old friends. They had a friendly face and they made you want to get up and go for a walk or a cycle ride.

Now, all over the country, growing bands of enthusiasts are collecting early Ordnance Survey maps as much for their covers as for the maps within. Ellis Martin cover designs are the most sought-after although there were other artists who worked as gifted amateurs with the professional Martin.

You can still find many of Martin's cover designs in second-hand book shops or at car boot sales up and down the country, and they can be purchased for as little as 1-50p if you're lucky. Once in a blue moon, a really serious collector will unearth a piece of original artwork and this is regarded as the equivalent of gold-strike in the map-collecting world. Ellis Martin died in a Sussex nursing home in 1977 at the age of 96. If ever a man captured the flavour of an age or even helped create that age it was he. Many commercial map publishers, seeing how successful he was in bringing Ordnance Survey maps to public notice, brought in their own artists to compete with him.

None was ever to match him upon his premature retirement on the outbreak of World War Two.

I found the above passage in a magazine about 6 or 7 years ago. In fact if anyone is interested the book is now out of print but can be bought from via the Internet. It cost around 13 including the postage. If any member has any old o/s maps that they would be interested in selling I would be more than happy to have a look to see if they are of interest to me.


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