Map of China from the early 17th century

This is a late Ming watercolour map of East Asia, including China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Southeast Asia and part of India, probably executed in the 1620s. The map has no title, and is very large, approximately 1×1.5m. The text is Chinese, but there are some Latin annotations by a later hand. The map shows shipping routes and compass bearings from the port of Quanzhou across the entire region. A panel of text on the left of the map near Calicut, its western extremity, gives directions of the routes to Aden and the Strait of Hormuz.


The shelfmark is MS Selden supra 105.


It came to the library from the estate of the London lawyer John Selden (d.1654) in 1659, along with a large collection of Oriental manuscripts, Greek marbles, a Chinese compass and the famous Aztec history known as the Codex Mendoza. It was most likely obtained in Southeast Asia through the East India Company’s base at Banten, but was almost certainly produced in the port of Quanzhou in Fujian province. It probably arrived in London towards the mid-17th century.

The map has always been known as an interesting curiousity from the time it arrived in the Library, but its importance was first recognised by the visiting American scholar Robert Bachelor in January 2008. He was the first to notice the shipping routes, which make the map unique among both Chinese and indeed European maps of the period, and has described it as “an object of globally recognizable significance”.


The Library has recently accepted a deposited collection of early children’s books from the Lewis Family Trust, which includes five harlequinades. A harlequinade (known also as a metamorphosis, flap-book or turn-up book) is composed of two single engraved sheets. The first sheet is folded perpendicularly into four sections. A second sheet is cut in half and hinged at the top and bottom edges of the first so that each flap could be lifted separately. The sheets are folded into four, like an accordion, and then roughly stitched with a paper cover. A verse on each section of the flap tells a simple story usually concluding with instructions to turn a flap to continue. When the flap is turned either up or down the viewer sees that half of the new picture fits onto the half of the un-raised flap, so the act of lifting one flap after another creates a surprise unfolding of the story. Click to see a harlequinade in action harlequinade-movie.

They were devised by the publisher Robert Sayer and were popular from about 1765 until the beginning of the 19th Century, although manuscript copies telling biblical stories survive from the late 17th Century. The printed copies often have Harlequin as the central character, hence harlequinade, and were sometimes published to accompany a current performance on the London stage.

Crumbs of comfort make half a loaf

Crums of comfortA tiny book arrived for inspection in the Rare Books section today. It’s the 1673 edition, not recorded in ESTC, of a book that, according to title page statements, ran to over 42 editions between 1623 and 1698.  If there really were that many editions, most don’t survive at all.  The recorded editions survive in only a few copies: some are unique examples.  This is the typical, paradoxical fate of the cheapest and most popular books — that they were read almost out of existence.

“Crumms of comfort”, by Michael Sparke, offered readers moral guidance reinforced with fold-out plates depicting examples of God’s salvation of Englishmen, from the Spanish Armada in 1588 and from plague in 1625. These historical centrefolds could have been crumbs of comfort for people living through a turbulent century.

Do we have a picture ….?

Sometimes the old things in the cellar come in handy after all.  I was just chatting to a colleague who asked, “Is there a way of finding out whether we have a picture, anywhere in the library, of William Wake?  There’s one at the National Portrait Gallery, but surely we have even an illustration in a book …?”

There is a way, but it is an old-fashioned one.  Periodically librarians go through the collections with an eye to their visual treats.  Someone had taken this to the extreme of having slips printed up with sections for the subject of the picture, the title of the book it is in, and the page.  They went through (how much of the collection? I can’t tell) and completed these slips, in beautiful blue fountain pen script.  The slips are arranged in two sets: topographical views and portraits. They are kept in boxes, about the size of a shoebox, stowed up on some high shelves in the bookstack.  So this is one of our Image Management Systems.

News from the ballads world

A reader was looking at a volume of broadside ballads, Wood 401, with a view to confirming whether the copy of “The wandering Jew’s chronicle” was really from 1634 as labelled in our main online catalogue (converted record).  This got me thinking again about the opportunities we might have to update the ballads database; so far we’ve investigated using a web service, mnemosyne, to link our ICONCLASS codes to a general index of codes, so linking our ballad woodcut material with emblems from other collections. But equally nice would be to allow people who are working on bibliographies of a particular ballad to link in to our examples — to form paths through the collection, that the simple browsing and indexing doesn’t really highlight, only exposes.

Cataloguing prints

On Friday the British Printed Images pre-1700 Project and the CSB jointly hosted a workshop at Birkbeck College on cataloguing prints, to get guidance and report on progress of their web database of prints. So far they plan to have all the British Museum pre-1700 British prints in their online collection.

The main question for consideration, as it is for all cataloguers, was “What are you cataloguing?”  This turns out to be a tricky one for prints. Are you cataloguing the printed page, the image (as a “work”, in the sense of the Platonic idea of the subject), or the uses of a single plate or woodblock? Where do you draw the line between a “variant” and a separate catalogue entry?  The example of the “headless horseman” was shown.  Someone remarked that maybe we should consider this a portrait of the horse!

There were good reasons, based on bibliographic research, for people wanting to know about the uses of a single plate through time, or the uses of each of the separate woodblocks that might be used together, or in different combinations, to create a title page border.

Fantastic alphabet from the 15th century

I visited the Ashmolean Museum print room today and saw an engraved animated alphabet, by the Master E.S. These are very large letters, and each has a theme; sometimes real but exotic animals (a leopard–a chimpanzee — how did this German fellow see these?) or fantastic animals, or human beings of various occupations and types. It was made about 1460. Apparently no single museum has a complete alphabet, but you could see all the letters if you travel to Oxford, Berlin, and Dresden. The letters are large — too large for a book, which makes you wonder what they were meant for. Also, what was the fascination with letters, such that they provide the theme for a cycle of prints, like the seasons? Anything to do with printing presses?