The Color of Old Maps, Part 2

By: Chris Lane • Feb 23, 2012 • 0 Comments

Financial Issues


The financial issues raised by new color are not greatly problematic.  Color, whether original or new, almost always increases and certainly does not diminish the value of a map.  Original color carries a premium over new color, sometimes significantly so, but while some buyers will not knowingly purchase maps with new color, nonetheless these maps are generally easier to sell than uncolored maps, even at higher prices.  A collector should be careful to purchase maps with “good” color, for poorly done or inappropriate color can detract from the value of a map.  Assuming good quality and appropriateness, a collector is financially secure in purchasing a map with new color.


Historical Issues


There are powerful historical arguments against adding color to maps after publication.7  Maps are historic artifacts, surviving documents from our history.  One can argue that we should be caretakers of our past and should treat its artifacts with respect, preserving them in as close to their original form as possible rather than modifying them to suit our purposes.  Professional curators and historians are usually amenable to some restoration and to minor, reversible modifications of original state, but adding color to a map is a major, irreversible change to original condition, and as such, it is argued, should never be done.



It can also be argued that the publisher of a map made an intentional decision about whether or not to add color, and if color was added, about how it was to be applied.  If we add new color to a map, we are subverting the original intent of the publisher and seriously distorting the historic meaning of that map.  Color, even when primarily decorative in intent, has always served the function of conveying information, and new color adds meaning to a map which is likely to be quite different from the original meaning.  Original color also provides us with oblique, unintended information, for the absence of color or the manner in which color was applied can give us knowledge of the publisher and his environment, about styles and tastes, about what information was considered important enough to highlight, and so forth.  Adding new color can both eradicate this historical information and distort our understanding by adding false clues to the past.


The historical arguments against adding new color are persuasive, but there are mitigating considerations.  As long as there are some maps by each publisher known to be in their original state, we can extract historic information about that publisher and his period from those examples.  No historical knowledge will be lost and the modified maps will not provide us with false information, as long as we realize they have new color.  Further, if new color is closely copied from a known original-color example, the new-color map can be used to glean historic content, the same way that an accurate facsimile of an original document can be used by scholars for research.  It can also be argued that as long as one carefully replaces lost or enhances faded original color, this is restoration rather than a distorting modification of the map.  And finally, if it is known that a particular black & white map was also issued with original color in other instances, its lack of color is something of an historical accident.  Coloring such a map to match the original-color examples would not seem inappropriate.


It is compelling to argue that historic artifacts should not be meddled with, but history is not an independent entity which can be segregated from our daily lives and preserved in ideal form.   Assuredly our history should be respected, but we also have to be willing to give up parts of our history in order to make our future.  If one takes the preservation argument too far, old buildings, laws, customs, language uses, cultural habits, and indeed all aspects of our past would be protected from change.  Anyone interested in antique maps would certainly agree that we must preserve and record our history, but it is impractical and undesirable to try to preserve all of our history without modification.


With reference to antique maps, it seems reasonable that as long as some examples of the maps of any particular publisher are preserved in their original state, it is not improper to modify other examples of his maps by adding new color.  Indeed, this has been done ever since maps were first published, so the addition of “new” color is itself a part of our history.  While a John Speed map colored in the eighteenth century by an English collector does not have original color, it is an historical artifact and provides us with insights different from those provided by a John Speed map with original color.  If we accept such colored maps as legitimate artifacts, it would be problematic to maintain that it is not legitimate to color a John Speed map today8.


Aesthetic Issues


New color can be applied either skillfully or badly, and while judgments may vary as to the quality of any particular instance of new color, it is clear that a map beautifully illuminated with new color is preferable to one with poorly done new color.  Even an uncolored map is usually more desirable than a map with inexpert new color.  Over the years and up to the present day, many of the colorists who have added new color to maps were highly skilled and produced some exceptionally beautiful maps, whereas some of the colorists who did original illumination of maps were less skilled and produced rather second-rate coloring jobs.  Is a beautiful example of a map with new color preferable to a map with mediocre original color?  It seems to boil down to a matter of individual taste.


Indeed, most decisions concerning particular examples of new color come down to individual preference.  What one person considers tasteful or attractive, another may find garish or displeasing.  However, one issue concerning new color which is less subjective is that of appropriateness.  Different cartographers or cartographic schools usually had a particular style of illuminating maps.  New color is appropriate, i.e. historically correct, if it has been added in the style of the original publisher.  While such color is certainly preferable to color applied inappropriately, this factor may vary in importance for each collector.  There can be strikingly beautifully maps with historically incorrect new color.  If such a map appeals to a buyer, is it important that other maps by the same cartographer were not originally colored in the same manner?  As in many other issues involving new color, this is a question without an absolute answer.


Collecting Issues


There is a significant difference between a map collector and a mere purchaser of maps.  It is neither the amount spent, nor the number of maps purchased, nor the importance of the maps which creates the distinction, but rather the approach of each individual towards his acquisitions.  The collector differs from the acquirer in pursuing his collection seriously, by having a collecting theme, and by applying a set of rigorous standards to any possible map purchase.  A map collector, then, needs to develop a set of criteria for screening potential purchases, and an important aspect of these criteria must be the consideration of issues of color.


A collector must decide how these issues apply to his purposes in collecting and to the theme of his collection.  If he is collecting for pleasure or decoration, then maps with attractive new color would be suitable.  If, however, he is pursuing a collection with a more serious historical purpose, then new color might be inappropriate.  If he is collecting for investment purposes, then original color should certainly be sought, but in many cases new color would be acceptable.  If the theme of a collection is related to decorative styles of different periods, then original color would be very important, whereas new color might be fine for a collection of maps focusing on one particular country.  Each collector must make his own decision about these issues.