Maps are curious documents – they are often aesthetically pleasing to look at, and they convey useful information, but they are also often intensely political, defining boundaries and borders where power and ownership lay.

And now an exhibition has opened that shows the wide range of maps of London that have been made over the centuries.

Ranging from one of the oldest surviving maps of the City of London right up to a very modern tube map, what the exhibition seeks to show is how maps have shaped our image of what London is. Tracing the growth of London from a small city that merged with Westminster, then expanded north and east, and only much later crossing the river.

The exhibition winds its way up a staircase with pictorially appealing maps, and then, once you’ve dropped bags off in the lockers, into the main room where a lot more maps with explanations about their importance are shown.

Maps show not only what is, but what could be, such as the 1756 plan of a new road that was planned to be built between Paddington and Islington, which was rather easier in those days when so much of the area was still fields.

Other maps remind us of political power, such as the big white space inside The Tower of London, a survey of which was refused when the map makers asked.

Some of the maps can surprise, such as the 1862 pocket map where north and south have been reversed. The map of the city from 1593 that’s the first to name individual roads, although I think you’ll need a magnifying glass to read them.

A view of London, as seen from a balloon over Hampstead in 1851 shows the incomplete Houses of Parliament and the house clearances needed to build King’s Cross station.

Some of the maps are more famous, such as Booth’s poverty maps, and the Insurance plans, which offer remarkable levels of information about late 19th-century London. More recently a map of racist attacks in Tower Hamlets reminds us how maps can highlight social problems.

As an exhibition, it’s almost too fascinating, as you can get sucked into looking at minute details all over the place in the many maps on show. Usefully they’ve included the archive reference so you can visit the archives at a later date for another look at the maps. Less usefully, the lighting in the display room is quite irritating with spotlights behind where you will want to stand and casting shadows and glares over the maps in places.

That said, it’s still a very enjoyable and informative exhibition and worth a visit.

The exhibition, Magnificent Maps of London is open at the London Metropolitan Archives until 26th October. The archive is open Monday to Thursday
10am – 4pm and entry is free.

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