John Speed (1552-1629)

John Speed (1552-1629)

In the history of British map making the name which is most familiar is that of John Speed; this is somewhat of an irony when one considers that he was, until his early fifties, a tailor by profession.

John Speed was born in the Cheshire village of Farndon in 1552 and from his youth pursued his father’s profession of tailoring. He later moved to London to continue this trade, though Speed’s real passions lay elsewhere, namely in the fields of antiquity and cartography. He joined the Society of Antiquaries where his enthusiasm soon attracted the attention of notables such as William Camden and Sir Fulke Greville. In 1596 Greville provided Speed with a full time allowance to write a Historie of Great Britaine. It was during this project that Speed decided to add a cartographic supplement to the work and it was from this that his famous atlas, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, was born.

When published in 1611/12, his atlas was an immediate success, outdoing the one established by Christopher Saxton in 1579. There were a number reasons for this: Speed’s atlas showed each county separately with its hundreds, was resplendent with heraldic shields but most significantly had one or two town plans. Displayed from a bird’s eye view perspective, many of the towns were surveyed by Speed himself using a distinct scale of paces and are the earliest known plans of these places. The aesthetic beauty of the maps are also down to the Dutch engraver, Jodocus Hondius, whose fine calligraphy and decorative strapwork are a feature throughout.

Two years before his death, Speed became the first Englishman to produce a World atlas which was titled A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World. Speed’s legacy was to however live on long after his passing, the Theatre was published in many editions until 1676. The maps were then published into the 18th Century by John & Henry Overton (with roads added) and finally in the 1780s by Dicey & co. giving them a life of 170 years.

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