Thomas Jefferys

Thomas Jefferys (c. 1710-1771) was one of the major commercial cartographers in London in the middle of the 18th century. He issued a plethora of maps, but it was Braddock Mead’s American maps, in particular Map of the Most Inhabited Part of New England (1755), that stand as his greatest successes. Even though Jefferys was not an actual compiler of maps himself, his skills as an engraver and perhaps more importantly in entering the right commercial partnerships, soon established him in cartographic circles.

Jefferys’ origins and beginning in the map trade are somewhat obscure. We know that from around 1735 he apprenticed as an engraver with the famous English map-maker Emmanuel Bowen. Once trained, he worked as an engraver for a number of different London publications, usually on map-related projects. Jefferys increasingly gravitated to his own projects and gradually worked his way up as a publisher and engraver of primarily maps. In 1746 he was appointed geographer to the Prince of Wales, which meant that at his ascension to the throne fourteen years later, Jefferys became Royal Geographer to King George III. In real life, these titles just conferred a degree of reputation as a tradesman favored by the court, they did not entail a salary or specific commissions per se. By 1750, his position and hard work nevertheless allowed Jefferys to move to new and larger premises at Charing Cross in central London.

The Seven Years War (1756-63), a British-French conflict fought in Europe, America and South Asia, created a boom in the demand for maps, and Jefferys was ideally positioned to response to this demand. During the course of those years especially maps of the Americas became popular, and with John Green (Mead) in his fold, Thomas Jefferys produced the very best of these on the market. In general, Jefferys took advantage of the increasing demand. Indeed, two of his maps – both compiled by Braddock Mead/John Green – are among the most influential maps ever made of the British colonies in America. Jefferys maps were in sync with public sentiment. From the moment war with France loomed, he displayed a strong position against French territorial claims. This was not particularly controversial, since the French policy of encircling and encroaching on the English colonies was considered a very real threat, but it did help his business.

With the war’s conclusion in 1763 demand waned and having lost his best in-house cartographer, things were not looking up. In 1765, following a number of self-funded county surveys in England that Jefferys had hoped would save him financially, his publishing house went bankrupt. By joining forces with Robert Sayer of London, another publisher specialized in maps, he attempted a final come-back in 1768 by publishing his General Topography of North America. In this impressive atlas Jefferys reissued 93 American maps and charts in 106 sheets, including the third and final state of Mead’s seminal map of New England. While the atlas enjoyed some commercial success and stands as a pivotal publication in the repertoire of American cartography today, it was not enough to save him. After Jefferys died in 1771, Robert Sayer purchased the remaining plates from Jefferys’ estate and used them to reissue maps with John Bennet.

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