John Speed | Mapping the Past, Navigating the Present

John Speed | Mapping the Past, Navigating the Present

Leading our Books and Maps auction on Tuesday 10 October, will be two atlases by one of the leading names in English cartography, John Speed (c.1551-1629). In the annals of cartography, few figures loom as large as John Speed, a 17th-century English mapmaker whose intricate and artful maps not only documented the geographical features of the world, but also provided valuable insights into the cultural, political and historical dimensions of his time.

22 September 2023



Speed’s contributions to the realm of cartography go beyond mere topographical accuracy; his maps are an intricate tapestry that weaves together geography and history, shedding light on the interconnectedness of the world during a pivotal period of exploration and discovery.


The Man Behind the Maps

Born c.1551 in the village of Farndon, Cheshire, John Speed displayed an early affinity for cartography. Trained as a tailor, he nurtured his passion for maps alongside his trade. In 1611/12, his magnum opus, ‘The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine’ was published, a work that would immortalise his name in the history of cartography. This ambitious undertaking contained county maps of England and Wales, and was the first English attempt at creating a large-scale atlas. Accompanied by detailed descriptions of each region’s history, culture and notable landmarks, ‘The Theatre’ was an immediate success, the first print run of 500 copies sold out quickly and many editions followed. By the 1627 edition, a bound copy of the atlas cost 40 shillings (around £3,000 in today’s currency).

However, getting to this point of success took some time. Speed moved to London and married the daughter of Thomas Draper of London, Susanna, by 1582 and according to sources they had eighteen children together. Following his father into the family business, a reliable trade at the time, he continued in this occupation until he was around fifty. However, alongside his profession, his insatiable curiosity for cartography and deep interest in history spurred him to produce several maps that caught the attention of a few learned individuals, most notably Sir Fulke Greville. It was through Greville and others’ patronage, that Speed was able to devote more time to his studies, creating maps for the Merchant Taylors and even Queen Elizabeth I.


Unveiling the Past: Historical Context

Speed’s maps were not merely functional tools for navigation; they were intricate repositories of historical knowledge. Each map was adorned with detailed illustrations of towns, cities and landmarks, presenting a visual narrative of the past, and each county map was illustrated with famous battles, local coats of arms, as well as Roman and prehistoric sites such as Stonehenge.


Speed (John) A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, Viz. Asia, Africa, Europe, America.(£10,000-15,000)

Speed (John) A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, Viz. Asia, Africa, Europe, America.(£10,000-15,000)

Cartography as Art

These maps were so much more than mere geographical sketches - they were works of art - and his attention to detail and aesthetic sensibility elevated them to the realm of fine craftsmanship.

The landscape was beautifully recorded, with rivers meandering through the landscape, small huddles of buildings to represent villages and towns, and woodland and parks marked by small clusters of trees. The countryside is filled with human and animal life, a ploughman and his horses are depicted at work in fields near Worcester, and British seas teem with sea monsters and ships in full sail. As a result, Speed’s maps transcended their utilitarian purpose to become pieces of art that captured the zeitgeist of the period.


Legacy and Influence

Speed acknowledged those that had been before him by paying tribute to earlier map-makers whose work he drew on: ‘I have put my sickle into other mens corne’. However, his meticulous approach to cartography set a standard for subsequent generations, influencing the likes of Joan Blaeu and Willem Janszoon Blaeu. His maps became treasured possessions among collectors and scholars, a testament to their enduring historical and artistic value, and ‘The Theatre’ was used as a blueprint for folio atlases for almost 150 years. In an age where maps are digital and navigation is automated, revisiting his work is a reminder of the intricate relationship between geography, history and the human touch that once defined the art of mapmaking.

We are proud to offer two of John Speed’s greatest works: ‘The Theatre’ and ‘A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World’, as a bound volume in our October Books and Maps sale. Viewing of the auction will take place at our Stansted Mountfitchet salerooms and bidding will be available in person or online.



Tuesday 10 October | 10am | 01279 817778







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