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More than one direction…

There is so much more to maps than mere guides; they can also be things of beauty, says cartographer David Wenk

17 November, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

David Wenk

MAPS, of course, help us work out where we are and where we are going.

But they also show the interests of the person who has produced them. They tell us about the time they were made, and what information the group who commissioned the map felt important. They showcase the latest technological equipment, from the sexton to the satellite, give insights into the geo-politics of the period they were made – and they are also beautiful to look at.

Cartographer David Wenk’s giant map library shows all of these things – and he has selected a handful from the 12,000 maps that fill his Camden Town home as part of a new show he has put together the show with Life magazine photographer Ramsay Wood at the Flaxon Ptootch gallery in Kentish Town.

“When I look at maps, time and again I deduce new pieces of information from what is held on them,” he says.

“If you look, for example, at a large-scale topographical map of the UK you can make deductions of land use, of why people settled in certain areas and what makes a place the way it is. You can think about why somewhere has beech trees, while somewhere else has pine. You can think about why a road follows the course of a river. You can find the stories of a place hidden in a map.”

The show marries photographs by Ramsay and a range of David’s maps that include the Caribbean in the pre-independence 20th century and areas of China from his aeronautical collection.

David, who is originally from New York state, moved to London in 1997 to work for the Lonely Planet guide books. He had trained as a cartographer at Buffalo University and has written a walking guide to Britain and another focusing on trekking in east Africa.

His personal library, which contains more than 12,000 maps, is the result of a life-long love affair with all things map related.

“I come from a family that is spread out all around the world,” he says. “My mother is from Cornwall, my dad from Queens, NY.

“I would travel across the Atlantic every summer to visit my grandparents and from an early age I was very aware of, and interested in, the size and scope of the world we live in. I would spend hours and hours poring over atlases and looking at far-off places. It really sparked my imagination as a child.”

His mother was a keen walker and that too brought an extra dimension to his interest, examining walking maps to plot trips.

“For me there was a connection between maps and a sense of adventure,” he adds.

“I look for collections of maps that want a home,” he says.

“Often universities have duplicates, or they are upgrading their maps so have ones that are now deemed redundant. Some have limitations on how many they can store and want new homes for them.”

David, who is also a trained pilot, has a series of aeronautical maps, used for route plotting and containing every airfield in the world.

Among his collection he has a range of vintage World War Two maps produced by the War Office and the Air Ministry that show the theatres of conflict across western Europe and North Africa. They came from the Clarendon press library in Oxford and were in a deep map chest he had bought. As with all maps, they show what the people who commissioned them deemed was important. One series he owns were made by the US State Department of Geology in the 1960s – and are of oil deposits in the Middle East.

“They shadow the geo-political situation in the region,” he says.

“You can see where oil reserves are waiting to be tapped, and which ones are close to shipping routes or pipelines.”

The world of mapping has changed greatly since he first started, with technology offering extraordinary detail.

“I straddle the technological divide in map making,” he says. “I started off when maps were made by hand. I would have to print off thousands of street names with a photostat and using a craft knife cut them out individually before placing them on a map. It was a painstaking process that is now all done digitally.”

But most of all, David believes the map is not just a helpful tool for getting around, nor for helping us understand our place in the world.

“They are more than that,” he says. “They are a form of modern art. They are interesting and beautiful objects in their own right.”

Snaps and Maps runs at Flaxon Ptootch, 237 Kentish Town Road, Kentish Town, NW5 2JT until December 4 from 10.30am to 7pm.


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