Riding the wave


The "Thames School"

With the first printed charts coexisted and enjoyed wide popularity, most probably because they were more durable in the unsuitable environment on board, handwritten parchment charts of the so-called "Thames School", founded the previous century, perhaps by Sebastian Cabot, near the Tower London, in an area marked as "At the signe of the Platt" It included from thirty to forty representatives, who subscribed to the Drapers' Company,to have a legal status. The art passed down with each other after an apprenticeship of at least seven years, and produced - within the early eighteenth century - a few thousand charts: William Hack alone seems to have made about 1600.

Its portfolio covered all the oceans of the world, including remote areas, neglected by the competition, and - though not derived from original surveys, since the charts were often copied from Dutch specimens - had the merit of stimulating printed production. These maps were similar in style, refinement and use of color, to those typical of the Mediterranean tradition, though less rich in decoration: bright colors, multicolored roses, ornate cartouches, choppy waters crossed by ships in full sail, and the typical grid of wind-rhumbs radiating from intersection points or roses, regularly distributed on the surface of the charts.

The charts produced by the Thames School were called platts because they were glued onto wooden boards hinged so as to be closed like a book, in order to protect the representation.

Basil Ringrose was a buccaneer of the ship "Trinity" to the command of Bartholomew Sharp, who captured in 1681 the Spanish ship 'Rosario' off of today's Ecuador. The booty included a collection of maps of the coast from Acapulco to Cape Horn, of great interest for England that contrasted Spanish hegemony on the coast of South America.

California [ca 1:2.000.000]. Basil Ringrose, ca 1682
Ink and watercolor, mm.184 x 147, no graphic scale.

The maps were thus reproduced in several manuscript editions by Capt. Sharpe - who edited the English translation, while the drawing was made by William Hack, a leading figure of the "Thames School" - and were assembled in an atlas, entitled Waggoner of the Great South Sea, which was donated to King Charles II. Basil Ringrose produced another version, complete with soundings, exhaustive nautical instructions and symbols to mark rocks and shallow water.

The drawing to the left is part of the manuscript pilot-book The South Sea Waggoners shewing the making and bearing all of the Coasts from California to the strieghts of Le Maire done from the Spanish original by Basil Ringrose.
It represents the California coast - at the time considered an island - from an unidentified cape de Saint Andrews to Cape Mendocino and Punta Baja; below, the coast from Punta de los Reys, the Triangulos (the "Farallon Islands") up to Point Año Nuevo.
(Greenwich, National Maritime Museum)
Moka. Agustine Fitzhugh, 1683
Ms. watercolor, mm. 385 x 325,
graphic scale in English miles [approx 1:50.000]
(Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

Agustine Fitzhugh too belonged to that prolific breeding ground of manuscript charts that was the "Thames School". His is a beautiful chart of Mocha on the Red Sea, just off the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb: the city was in the seventeenth century such an important commercial node between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, that the Dutch and English East India Companies established there offices and stores, around 1680. Oriented with north to left, the chart depicts the city, enclosed by a dotted line that represents the ancient city walls, within which we distinguish its main monuments. Above, two views: the one above shows the coast as it appears in perfect visibility, while the one below shows it in the presence of haze. The effect of fog - that, by hiding the hills behind, makes the city appear more clear - was graphically obtained by drawing the view below on a larger scale.

A member of the Thames School was Joseph Moxon, best known for his biblical maps, who was nevertheless among the first authors of nautical atlases with his Book of Sea Platts, published in 1657. His production actively spurred on the English cartographic tradition, which found in John Seller its "founder."

The charts above are reproduced in Coste del Mondo nella cartografia europea: 1500-1900 , (179 p., about 300 images), by Paola Presciuttini, published by Priuli & Verlucca, Ivrea, 2000.)