Archive for the ‘Friends of the National Libraries’ Category

Seventeenth-century satnav

November 3, 2010

The Belton copy of Ogilby's Britannia, showing the route from London to Lincoln. ©National Trust

A few months ago we purchased a copy of John Ogilby’s Britannia at auction at Bonhams in London. The book has a provenance from Belton House, Lincolnshire. 

The north front of Belton House seen from the Dutch Garden. ©NTPL/Rupert Truman

John Ogilby (1600-1676) was an amazing polymath, who had successive careers as a dancing master, courtier, theatre owner, poet, translator and compiler of geographical works and atlases. 


In 1675 he produced Britannia, which was essentially a road atlas in the form of strip maps guiding the traveller from A to B, not unlike today’s satellite navigation devices.

The maps were based on on-the-ground research facilitated by a wheeled contraption to measure distances. Britannia represented the first major advance in cartography since Tudor times and helped to standardize the mile at 1760 yards.

The Study at Belton, which was the main library in Lord Tyrconnel's day. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The book collections at Belton House are among the finest in any National Trust house, showing the reading and book collecting habits of one family over a period of more than 350 years.

The copy of Britannia was owned by one of the most bookish members of the family, Sir John Brownlow, fifth Baronet and Viscount Tyrconnel (1690-1754). 

Portrait of Sir John Brownlow, Viscount Tyrconnel by Charles Jervas. Acquired with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, 1984. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Tyrconnel was keen on politics, but in spite of his support for the Walpole government (which earned him his Viscountcy) his contempories were not much impressed by his political skills. However, he was praised for his ‘nice taste and well-chosen knowledge’ of the arts.

The Belton conversation piece, by Philippe Mercier, showing Lord Tyrconnel (on the left) with his family in the grounds of Belton House. Acquired with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, 1984. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Tyrconnel assembled a collection of old master paintings, but he also patronised the artists of the day. The charming Belton Conversation Piece by Philippe Mercier was one of the first ‘conversation pieces’ to be painted in England.

Tyrconnel aslo supported the poets Alexander Pope and Richard Savage. The latter was even offered shelter in Tyrconnel’s London house, but he was eventually thrown out again because of his habitual insolence and drunkenness and because he had pawned some of Tyrconnel’s books.

The Library at Belton. The room was created by James Wyatt in 1778 and was only converted into a library in 1876, but it does contain some of Viscount Tyrconnel's books. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Tyrconnel collected books on science, history, travel, theology, literature and the classics. The books at Belton have just been fully catalogued and can be searched through the Copac database.

The acquisition of the Belton copy of Britannia was generously supported by the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and by the Friends of the National Libraries.