Just what is so absorbing about the aerial view? Since childhood the world as depicted on a map has held a fascination for me and for many others. On a map we see the world as an ideal where the clutter of life appears organised, tidy and we can see the landscape without any fear of the unknowns within it. The world seen as a map is a safe place; all its connections are clear and our place in it unquestioned and all encompassing. The uncertainties, the filth and humanity of the world are somehow diminished by the scale of the view and we can feel comfort in our understanding of the territory, if only in our minds eye!
This idealised landscape view was created by Ronald Lampitt (1906-1988) to show how this map could come to life. The skies are blue, the concrete motorway pristine clean, not a hint of blue smoke from the tired old DMU clattering over the crumbling Victorian viaduct, no powerlines transect this cosy scene of mid 20th century life. The boundary between urban and rural is a perfect edge, the pattern of fields is pinned with the timeless landmarks of church, mill and hedgerow.
The map re-enforces the sense of idyll by providing cues for visual memory; the symbols on Ronald’s map reflect the world as he wanted it to be. When he read the point symbols on his map this is what he saw : the landscape of his childhood memory made real.
All the buildings are at least pre-war and mostly pre-19th cent, in this idyll England is green, pleasant and time has stood still since 1930; it is the England of the railway posters Ronald painted for the Great Western and Southern Railway companies in the 20’s and 30’s: it is an imaginary world evoked by a reaction to cartographic triggers.
In reading a map we match our expected view of the world to the abstraction of the cartographers convention. The permanence of the lines on a map are illusory. A high street of bustling shops in 1960 may well turn out to a row of boarded up spaces to let in 2011. A mark on a map tells us nothing of how things really are; it merely serves as a prompt for the imagination.
These illustrations are from the Ladybird book: Understanding Maps published in 1967. As a guide to the cartographic treatments of the day it’s completely reliant on Ronald Lampitt’s world view to convey the idea of the map as a portable reality. We are presented with abstraction upon abstraction. In one small book for children the fallacy of the map as a ‘truth’ is presented as a beautifully depicted landscape of an England that never was quite as neat, never was quite as comfortable as we, or Ronald, would wish it to be.
In Maps in Minds: cognitive mapping (1977) Roger M Downs & David Stea show how mapmaking hinges on the decisions of: Purpose, Perspective, Scale and Symbolisation and also how the cultural bias inherent in map reading changes information transmission as each of these decisions is decoded by the reader. In firmly placing an English idyll as the image on the map Ladybird (reinforced by the Rev. Awdry’s end paper maps and Look & Learn ‘birds eye’ illustrations) set my mental baseline for map-reading and landscape interpretation: I look for, and isolate, the same fixed points in time (church, pub, windmill, hill-top and hedgerow) as well as space (road, power lines, railway and river) to decode the scenery around me.
Even a poor aerial view like this one ( yes that’s the radio antenna in shot top right) draws the viewer inward towards the detail: surfaces, textures, bird shit: all life is here but the detachment from the scene invites inquiry…just like a map!
In the age of Google Earth our relationship with the map is changing but the fascination with its viewpoint remains: the selectivity with which Panoramio posters isolate their view of the world and place it on the map is but one example of how we see the world as we want to rather than ‘objectively’.
It may be something of a surprise to learn but cartography is as much a window on ourselves as it is on the world.
Ronald Lampitt had a strong affection for maps and how they work in our minds: his best remembered work is perhaps The Map that Came to Life (1948). A tale of a journey of discovery (with a map) into a friendly world:
An appreciation of Lampitt’s the Map that Came to Life by Phillip Wilkinson is here
More on Ronald Lampitt here