1552-1629, English historian and cartographer
John Speed was probably the most famous of all English cartographers. Originally from Cheshire, and a tailor by trade, he moved to London rather late in life. Whilst in London, his passion for history led him to the Society of Antiquaries, and it was there, whilst in the company of such notable and eminent members as William Camden, that he came to the attention of Sir Fulke Greville.
Under Greville's patronage, he was set free of financial worries to pursue his passions, and devote his entire attention to research. The patronage and financial sponsorship of Greville soon opened many doors for the former tailor, and he was granted a room in the Custom House by Queen Elizabeth, where, with the encouragement of William Camden, he embarked on a remarkable career that saw him become the first person to produce a proper full scale atlas of the British Isles.
His atlas, 'The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine' was published in the years 1610/1611 and was an immediate success. Part of this success could be attributed to the fact that most of Speed's county maps included town plans, a great innovation at the time, and which was well received.
The maps were also widely liked not only because they were more up-to-date and accurate than previous offerings, but because of the elaborate design and appealing ornamentation which was finely engraved by the renowned Jodocus Hondius, who was just beginning to establish a business in Amsterdam having previously spent a number of years in London. All of these factors are reasons which still make the maps desirable to collectors today.
As to the town plans, these were in fact the first collection of town plans of these isles. It was said that Speed himself surveyed these towns, with the scale usually given in paces. It is highly unlikely however, that Speed surveyed our cities for the Irish maps, or for that matter that he ever set foot in Ireland. Especially, given the precarious political nature of the country at the time. To put things in context, the 'Theatre of the Empire....' was issued just 3 years after the Flight of the Earls, and 1 year after King James I issued orders for the Plantation of Ulster.
For information for the atlas, Speed assembled much of his material from earlier works by Saxton, Norden and others, and enlisted the assistance of other Society of Antiquaries' members, Camden, Robert Cotton and William Smith. But apart from the townplans, little of the cartographic detail seems to have been original. He goes as far as to admit to the fact in his introduction to the 'Theatre' when he issues the statement, 'I have put my sickle into other mens corne, and have laid my building upon other mens foundations'.
Nonetheless, his improvements and innovations proved that the enterprise was a complete success, and they proved invaluable tools of administrative control for the newly installed Stuart government.
The atlas' first edition of 1611, was published by Sudbury & Humble, and these plates were used for the numerous subsequent editions until 1676 when Bassett and Chiswell's name appeared as the publishers.
Speed's other famous work, the 'Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World', was published just before he died in 1627, and was the first World atlas produced by an Englishman. It is not known however, even though attributed to Speed in the title, what contribution he actually made to the work. It is therefore, on the 'Theatre' that his work is mainly judged.
Today, Speed's maps of Ireland are probably the most sought-after and best known by collectors of maps relating to Ireland. Their enduring desirability has seen the prices paid for even rather inferior examples rise enormously over the past decade. The fact is that with Speed's maps of Ireland, edition is as important as condition when assessing value, if not more so. Unfortunately, many auctioneers and indeed some dealers just quote the 1610 date from the publishers box on the front of the maps, a date which remained unchanged throughout many editions.
Whilst, it must be said that this is not done to deceive, but is more from a lack of understanding and knowledge of the subject, edition is of the utmost importance. To properly and accurately date the maps, a science in itself, one must refer to the changes in the text, layout and typsetting on the back of the maps, for this it is best to seek a specialist dealer's advice, especially now that these maps represent such an outlay for the collector.
Speed produced 5 maps relating to Ireland. A 'cartes a figures' general map of Ireland, and 4 maps of the provinces, each with various townplans.