The Ogilby collection at Belton
Belton is home to one of the largest and most important libraries of any of the National Trust’s houses.
Nevertheless, many of its wonderful books were sold during the 20th century before the National Trust acquired Belton. Included were these two superb atlases, which were auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1971.
Fortunately, it was possible to buy back John Ogilby’s 1675 road atlas of England & Wales in 2010. But his earlier, extraordinary atlas of the Americas only reappeared in 2018 at a sale in New York.
Anticipating such a book would attract much interest in the United States, the National Trust had to act swiftly to arrange funding, before bidding successfully over the telephone and ensuring its return home to Belton.
However, a further four Ogilby atlases once at Belton remain to be found. They are the volumes of Africa, Asia, China and Japan. So, if you happen to come across them…
The atlases’ Scottish creator, John Ogilby, 1600 – 76, was a colourful character who’d abandoned an early career as a dancing master after injuring his leg dancing in a masque.
But he went on successfully to establish Ireland’s first theatre: the Werburgh Street Theatre in Dublin.
His theatre was forced to close in a rebellion and, having twice narrowly escaped death soon afterwards in the English Civil War, he was left to revive his lost fortunes by learning Latin and Greek to translate and publish expensive, illustrated editions of the classics, including Aesop’s Fables.
Ogilby cleverly cultivated wealthy patrons for his fine books, and on the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 was even commissioned to write songs and speeches for Charles II’s coronation. But six years later he lost his house and business stock in the Great Fire of London, though re-established himself close-by in White Fryers - at which address these atlases were published.
It may have been his subsequent appointment as an assistant surveyor for the rebuilding of the City following the Fire that turned Ogilby’s interest to publishing these high-quality atlases - leading ultimately to his appointment as His Majesty’s Cosmographer & Geographic Printer just two years before his death.
The atlas holds 57 large plates of maps and depicts the landscapes, animals, people and trades of North and South America.
Bearing Viscount Tyrconnel’s bookplate and the pencil shelf-mark no.99. Revealing, curiously, that it was not shelved with the other atlases in the family’s collection.
As Ogilby published his atlas of America just over a century before the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, it is a representation of the colonial lands which were then being taken and fought over by several European nations.
For instance, in addition to the English colonies of the Carolinas and New England states plus a few other parts, the English had very recently taken control of Dutch holdings and renamed them New York.
Around this time France, too, was establishing extensive colonies including Newfoundland, Illinois and Louisiana; and Spain was consolidating her long-held territories of Florida, Alabama, California and others.
However, it was to be another half-century before Viscount Tyrconnel - whose atlas this was – was appointed a trustee of newly founded Georgia.
This is Ogilby’s best-known work and is celebrated for the first use of the standardised length of the mile at 1760 yards. Prior to this, the length of a mile varied from region-to-region, as in fact, other units continued long afterwards.
The front piece shows surveyors out measuring with a stick-held wheeled device called a waywiser, plus mounted travellers consulting a map having passed through a city gate.
Belton’s local town of Grantham – 3 miles to the south - features on plate 6, showing the road from Stilton to Tuxford. This is part of the London to Berwick on Tweed route along the Great North Road. Belton House, however, doesn’t appear – not been complete for another 13 years!
The atlas covers more than 7500 miles of road in England and Wales using an easy to follow strip form layout that has, in fact, been used since at least Roman times. Significantly, it’s drawn at a scale of 1 inch: 1 mile, which was later adopted as a standard small scale.
However, it must have been severely impractical for use as a travelling road atlas on account of its size. To address this, Ogilby’s step-grandson, William Morgan, later published the Traveller's pocket-book, or, Ogilby and Morgan's Book of the roads improved and amended.
Belton has a copy of this later work, and a user has annotated the pages showing how to travel from Belton to Erddig, near Wrexham. This is particularly interesting because Baron Brownlow’s sister, Elizabeth, married Philip Yorke of Erddig – now a National Trust property.
Reunited after almost half a century
Having recently re-acquired the late 17th century Ogilby book of America, Belton’s house and collections team have reunited the atlases, which can be seen on display in the Anti-Library from autumn 2019.