The preeminent English mapmaker of the mid-17th century was John Speed, and among his prolific output no map has attained the exalted status of his acclaimed world map from 1651.
There are many reasons why this map has become an icon in the world of map collecting and scholarship:
- It is one of the first world maps compiled by an English mapmaker and published in English.
- It comes from the hand of John Speed, one of the most important and seminal figures in the history of English cartography.
- It is a masterpiece in cartographic design, with an incredible amount of detail.
The map is a beautifully constructed double hemisphere, which combines the finest traditions of English and Dutch mapmaking to create one of the most celebrated aesthetic charts of the age. Surrounding the two hemispheres we find the abundant ornamentation for which 17th century maps were famous, but in this case we have a wonderful example of the transition from one aesthetic to another. Thus we find the map itself rife with decorative features like sea monsters and ships, which are more reminiscent of late 16th and early 17th century traditions.
But traditional motifs in this map they have been reduced significantly in size and detail, and now it is especially the margins around the two hemispheres that contain the most elaborate decorative elements. These include mythological, cosmographical, and scientific scenes, as well as ample references to the age of exploration in which this chart was produced. Perched between the two terrene hemispheres we find two smaller globes with celestial charts for the Northern and Southern Hemispheres respectively. This contrast between northern and southern hemispheres in the heavens, and eastern and western hemispheres on the map, is but one the many elegant juxtapositions in Speed’s chart.
Among the abundant important cartographic details, we find one of the first renditions of the pioneer settlement of New Plymouth, as well as very early depictions of both California and Korea as islands. The map also includes quasi-mythological features such as the island of Frisland off Greenland and the Straits of Anian in the Pacific Northwest. At the bottom of both hemispheres we see an enormous unexplored continent, which in the western hemisphere has been labeled MAGALLANICA in reference to Ferdinand Magellan’s famous circumnavigation of the earth.
Circumnavigation is generally a theme in this early world map. In addition to the toponymic references to Magellan, we find him among a series of four portraits of 17th century explorers. Other than Magellan we find Sir Francis Drake, who raided the Spanish settlement in America and escaped retribution by unexpectedly crossing the Pacific; we find the privateer and explorer Thomas Cavendish, who deliberately tried to copy the feat pulled off by Drake; and then there is the merchant pirate Oilver van der Noort, who was the first Dutchman to sail around the earth.
States of the map
Four states of this map are known:
- A first state is dated 1626, but was published in 1627 as part of Speed’s atlas, A Prospect of the most Famous Parts of the World.
- A second state is dated 1651. George Humble’s name has been replaced by his son, William Humble.
- A third state was published by the Rea Brothers. This state kept the 1651 and is scarce because the Rea Brothers’ in the Great Fire of London (1666).
- A fourth state was issued after the plates for Speed’s atlas were sold to Thomas Bassett and Richard Chiswell, who erased the Rea’s imprint and added their own for fourth state in 1676. No further changes were made, so the date 1651 was preserved, visible at top right.