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The greats outdoors: How estate maps shaped landscape painting

The maps surveyors drew in the 16th century not only show a new attention to the specifics of the landscape, but can be beautiful objects in their own right. 

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The origins of British landscape ­painting are generally thought to lie in the 17th century, when an influx of artists arrived from the Low Countries bringing this new genre with them. But its roots go much deeper into the cultural soil and ­further back in time. Landscape ­painting grew from sources as diverse as medieval manuscript illuminations and tapestries, Elizabethan portrait miniatures and decorative plasterwork. One fertile antecedent, however, has been largely overlooked.

The 16th century saw the beginnings of the “estate map”, a plan of a landowner’s demesne showing, each in its proper position, its fields, woods, streams, lakes and houses. The bird’s-eye view is commonplace now but 450 years ago it was still a novelty. As one early 17th-century writer put it, estate maps meant “the Lord sitting in his chayre, may see what he hath, where and how it lyeth, and in whose use and ­occupation every particular is”.

Maps with any degree of accuracy were possible only because of the growth of surveying as an independent profession. The earliest printed English surveying manual is John Fitzherbert’s The Boke of Surveying and Improvements, published in 1523, which cast the surveyor as an estate steward. A whole series of surveyors’ books later redefined this role as it became increasingly specialised. In the later 16th century ­surveyors would promote their skills as mathematicians and measurers on printed advertisements they “fixed upon posts in the streets” of London.

The rise in the profession was tied to changes in the agrarian economy and indeed the wider social order, not least those brought about between 1536 and 1541 by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. The king’s diktat released a vast amount of monastic land into private hands and the new owners wanted to have an idea of what they now possessed: as Fitzherbert put it, a lord of the manor “Should know his own”. The old folk measurements such as a “hide”, defined by William Folkingham in 1610 as a piece of land “as may be tilled with one teame. . . in a yeere and a day”, and a “knight’s fee”, “so much Inheritance as is sufficient yearely for the maintenance of a Knight”, were no longer fit for purpose.

Surveyors, however, were far from popular among the country people, who often saw them as menacing the existing order, the creatures of landlords threatening to enclose common lands and force further hardship on the poor. In 1548, for example, a Protestant polemicist named Robert Crowley wished “a plague, of all plagues most horrible” on them. “God has not set you to survey his lands,” he said, “but to play the stewards in the households of this world, and to see that your poor below tenants lack not their necessaries.” In his view to be a landowner brought responsibilities towards those who lived within their bounds. The surveyor, by quantifying the land, working out its exact legal status, its yields, tenures and rents, was an agent of covetousness – a clear-eyed apparatchik in the service of rapacious landlords.

This may seem a long way from art, but the maps surveyors produced and drew not only show a new attention to the ­specifics of the landscape but can be beautiful objects in their own right. The maps themselves were often large, coloured and meant for display as much as practical use. Here was a way for a landowner to show off both his wealth and his conviction that God is in his Heaven and all’s well with the world.

County record offices hold numerous old estate maps but few are as early or as fine as that made in 1582 by John Darby (died circa 1609) for Edward Parker, tenth Lord ­Morley (1555-1618). Now in the British Library, it shows the parish of Smallburgh some 12 miles north-east of Norwich. Morley had only just regained the land after it was confiscated from his father, a Catholic accused of treason, in 1572: Morley père was left to wander the continent in poverty but may be present in allegorical form in the ­figure bottom left leaning on his staff with a monkey on his shoulder.

The map is a little under two metres wide and drawn on two sheets of parchment. It is probably unfinished (there is no title and several of the field names are blank) and full of quirks: South is at the top, the lake with its swan, ducks and boatmen is white – a reflection of cloudy East Anglian skies perhaps – rather than blue, the cartouches at the cardinal points contain putti that show Darby had seen prints from Italy. Nevertheless, the map is a working tool – drawn to scale and using colour to show the different aspects of the land (ochre for arable land, dark green for marshland, a richer green for pasture).

Darby drew other maps around Norfolk and Suffolk, but the Smallburgh map shows him to have been more than a mere surveyor. Not only does he depict himself (or his man) in the bottom right with his measuring bar and compasses (a figure taken from a Flemish print) but he enlivens the fields with such scenes as cows grazing, dogs chasing a hare, a pig being fed, and a milkmaid carrying a pail. Such delightful incidental details could be found in medieval psalters and they would become standard eye-snags in the landscape paintings of succeeding centuries. Here Darby played the artist rather than the sober practical man and included them for his own and his patron’s diversion: they transform these patches of colour from the dully utilitarian into tableaux with a vivid life of their own. Morley may have paid for a grand but straightforward record of his holdings but what he got was a narrative of rural life.

The Smallburgh map was still in use on the estate in 1762 but it isn’t too fanciful to picture local artists recognising it as a work of imagination as well as of applied science and, in their mind’s eye, tilting its flat ­microcosmic scene to conjure up more naturalistic – but not necessarily more ­enchanting – worlds of their own.

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 14 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, This house must fall