A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, with The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, John Speed, 1631

John Speed 1552

John Speed (1552-1629) was an English cartographer and historian, one of the most famous English mapmakers of the early modern period. Speed is best known for two atlases, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, first published in 1611/1612, and A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, first published in 1627. This 1631 edition incorporates these two great works in one volume.

Speed’s The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine has become a landmark in the history of British topography. It was the first English attempt to produce a grand scale atlas of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, containing the first set of county maps, the first comprehensive set of English town plans, as well as the first detailed maps of the provinces of Ireland. What also made Theatre of the Empire remarkable was the beauty of its engravings and embellishments. Speed was also one of the earliest English antiquarians and his maps are rich with details of local history, containing insets of costumed figures, historical scenes, battles, ancient artefacts and monuments, images of the great cathedrals and palaces, together with the heraldic shields of princes and nobles. The plates were engraved by the Flemish cartographer Jodocus Hondius.

A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World is credited with being the first world atlas to be compiled by an Englishman. Like Theatre of the Empire, it contains beautiful engravings; the bordering panels depict people in local costume and panoramic views of the major towns and cities. However A Prospect lacked the accuracy of Theatre of the Empire, with some areas of the world covered in much more detail than others. Speed identifies four continents, Asia, Africa, Europe and America. America is incomplete containing only “those known parts of that unknown world”. It also contains one of the earliest examples of the seventeenth century cartographic error of depicting California as an island.

In a fascinating example of book provenance, Thomas Layton’s copy of A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, with The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, once belonged to John Flaxman (1755 – 1826). Flaxman was a prolific sculptor and illustrator, who early in his career worked as a modeller for Josiah Wedgwood pottery. He was also a leading figure in British Neoclassicism and became the Royal Academy’s first Professor of Sculpture in 1810. Inside this edition is pasted a letter written by Flaxman to a friend, dated 30th December 1820. In it Flaxman thanks his unknown friend for the present of six bottles of mead, which “must be very like Nectar it is so delicious”. Another inscription reveals that another owner of the book was John Bridge, who acquired the volume at the sale of John Flaxman’s books at Christies, on the 12th June 1828.

Albert Frederick Pollard (1898) ”John Speed” in Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 53, p. 318.

Stewart Mottram (2013) “Mapping the British Archipelago in the Renaissance” in A Companion to British Literature, Volume 2: Early Modern Literature, 1450 – 1660, (2013) ed. Robert DeMaria, Jr., Heesok Chang & Samantha Zacher, John Wiley & Sons



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