The Drapers' Company And Its School Of Seventeenth Century Chart-Makers [1]

By Tony Campbell

A recent and quite unexpected discovery in the archives of one of London’s leading livery companies has drawn together into a common context the activities of a number of chart-makers who worked beside the Thames in the seventeenth century. Enquiries, made some ten years ago at Drapers’ Hall (at the instigation of Professor Thomas Smith of Kansas University) revealed that these chart-makers were bound together into a system of master-apprentice relationships, spanning more than a century. Several of the names thrown up by this discovery were already known from the charts they had signed. John Burston, Nicholas Comberford, John Daniel, Joel Gascoyne, William Hack and John Thornton all had a firm place in the cartographic history of the period before the Drapers’ information came to light. What was now clear was that the stylistic similarities in their work were the result of direct training and not imitation.


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The names mentioned above are the best known members of the school. Together with the lesser figures they include almost all the chart-makers known to have been working in seventeenth century England. The earliest surviving signed and dated example of their work is a chart of the southern Atlantic drawn by John Daniel in 1614 [2]; the latest product of the school is a copy of a Gerritsz chart, drawn by Robert Friend in 1739. [3] Given this long period of activity it is not surprising that the early and late productions look somewhat different. But what caused a Spanish scholar, Camarero [4], to suggest that the chart-makers under discussion should be considered to form a school was not a knowledge of the Drapers’ records but a simple deduction from the visual similarities of the charts produced in the first half century of the school’s life. That this study (published in a Spanish periodical) is as yet the only one to have been devoted to this group as a whole is an indication of how much remains to be done.

Camarero - and others before him [5] - had noticed that the charts of Daniel and his successors, up to roughly the 1670s, exhibited a number of striking similarities. They were portolan-charts with the coastal outlines laid down in the traditional manner over a network of compass roses and interlocking rhumb lines. They were drawn on vellum with coloured inks. Qualities which can be considered their hall-marks are the elaborate compass roses [6] and cartouches which decorate their work, as well as their practice of laying the chart down onto hinged oak boards, so that it could be folded away for protection.

Professor Smith has made a detailed study of the life and work of one of the school’s leading figures, Nicholas Comberford [7]. This work is unpublished at the time of writing but the author has very kindly made a preliminary draft available. Besides sketching in Comberford’s career Professor Smith sets it into the wider context of the school as a whole, as well as relating his charts to similar ones produced by other members of the school. He has also pointed out various possible lines of investigation for the future: the relation between manuscript and printed charts and the financial basis of chart-making in general; the precise use to which these charts were put; the quality of their hydrographic content and the development of their stylistic features; and the relationship between these chart-makers and the Drapers’ Company.

The present article will pursue the last line of enquiry. It will attempt to find answers to the questions that have been posed by Professor Smith and others since the discovery was first made. Why should these chart-makers be members of a London livery company; what are the implications of this membership and how did the system work; and why should they have belonged to the Drapers’ Company in particular - in other words, how did it all start? An attempt will be made to show that a connection between a group of chart-makers and one of the large livery companies was a perfectly natural one, exceptional in this case only for the long period it was maintained.

It should be stated at the outset that throughout this article the word school is used in a sense which emphasises that the fundamental link between its members is one of training or apprenticeship rather than one of stylistic imitation. It is not strictly a school of practising chart-makers; it is a school that set out to train chart-makers. By defining it in terms of apprenticeship rather than occupation its membership is extended beyond the twelve people who are known to have produced manuscript charts. Among those who join any training organisation will be some who fail to complete the course, or who on finishing it, branch out into something different. But the historian of that organisation cannot deal only with those whose later careers are relevant to their training, without giving a very uneven account. So it is here. To understand how the techniques of chart-making were transmitted from John Daniel down to the apprentices of John Friend in an unbroken chain of master-apprentice relationships it is necessary to know the position of each individual in the school as a whole. The Apprentice Tree (next page) shows the school’s total membership of thirty-seven people. Many of these remain little more than names and the lesser figures may never have produced a single chart. But (with probably the sole exception of the four apprentices to Charles Wild, the sailor) they were all apprenticed for the purpose of learning how to prepare manuscript charts. If the names which flank the school’s central chart-making nucleus are the system’s drop-outs - and we have no conclusive evidence to this effect - they are still an integral part of that system.

The Apprentice Tree does not represent the result of any process of selection or pruning. All the apprentices of James Walsh’s apprentices, and so on down the line, have been included. When a line comes to an end it is because the last named individual failed to bind his own apprentices; it is not because the line’s continuation ceases to have relevance to chart-making. Hence the school is a self-contained and exclusive entity. Any definition of the school’s composition which restricted member-ship to the central progression of known chart-makers would be an arbitrary one based on the incomplete state of present knowledge and there is a very real possibility that signed work by some of the school’s lesser members may one day come to light.

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  • 29-5-1973

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