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The Color Of Old Maps

Views: 6682 Added: 07/17/2009 Updated: 07/17/2009



Many antique maps were initially issued with color, but many have been colored subsequent to their original publication.  How does one distinguish between original color and recent color?  Does it matter?   Here is guide to everything a collector needs to know about the color of old maps.




Printed maps have been issued with color ever since they first appeared.  Color was used for two main purposes; decoration and information.  Color made maps more attractive, which was an aid in selling as well as an end in itself.  Color also served the function of conveying information by supplementing monochromatic symbols and enabling the cartographer to differentiate parts of the map and emphasize features such as rivers, lakes, and towns.


Color on Medieval manuscript maps was a primary element used to convey information, but because early maps could not practicably be printed with color, it came to be seen as an optional rather than an essential element of printed maps.  There was still a demand for colored maps, so many publishers issued their printed maps both in an uncolored version and, for an extra charge, in a colored version. Uncolored maps were considered complete, with any added color seen as an embellishment.


Before the mid-nineteenth century, essentially all color on maps was applied by hand.1  Map publishers and sellers hired independent colorists or did coloring on their own premises, and individual purchasers hired illuminators to embellish maps purchased in black & white.  Coloring workshops were established and the craft of illuminating maps became an independent trade.  Many famous cartographers were also map colorists, including Abraham Ortelius, who began his career as an “afzetter van kaerten” [colorist of maps], Guillaume Delisle, Nicolas Berey, and Alexis-Hubert Jaillot.


It was not only professionals, however, who colored maps.  Many individual purchasers colored their own maps either for pleasure or in order to save money.  Map coloring became an accepted pastime for the upper classes.  As early as the sixteenth century, and then in increasing numbers in the following centuries, books were issued for the cultured gentlemen and lady which included information on how to color maps2.


The results of this “contemporary”3 coloring were mixed.  Many of the maps colored by amateurs were very poorly done, but even maps colored by such top quality illuminators as those hired by the Blaeu firm from Amsterdam varied in quality.  Various publishers, including Blaeu, issued maps with different levels of illumination, ranging from basic tinting up to exquisite color highlighted with real gold leaf.


By the nineteenth century, the use of stencils and then color printing changed the nature of color on maps.  It became the standard for maps to be published with color and the quality of color became more uniform from map to map.  This meant that color could again become an important tool for conveying information, and indeed the functional purpose of color began to outweigh its decorative role.


Original Color


Strictly speaking, original color is color added to a map at the time of its publication, by or under the direction of the map publisher.  However, in the broader sense implied by the alternative terms “contemporary color” and “period color,” the concept encompasses color added by the original map seller or by a professional illuminator hired by the initial purchaser.  In this broad sense, original color can even include instances where the initial owner added his own color.


The first issue which a collector faces is how to tell the difference between original and new color.  In some cases this is an easy matter to decide, but often even an experienced expert may have great difficulty in determining the age of a particular map’s color.  In recent years, collectors and dealers have come to demand maps illuminated with “appropriate” color, and so modern colorists have become proficient at applying color which looks the same as original color.  Also, as prices for some maps have increased to significant amounts, it has become worthwhile for unscrupulous persons to learn to duplicate the appearance of original color in order to sell newly colored maps for prices appropriate to those with original color.


While it is often difficult to gauge the originality of the color in a particular map, there are ways in which a collector can become more competent in making such judgments.  The most important means of gaining proficiency in identifying original color is to study the history of maps in order to learn what type of color, or lack thereof, is typical of which maps.  Though such knowledge will not provide a definite determination concerning the color of any individual map, it can give a collector a good idea of the likelihood of its being original.


A collector should learn which publishers did and which did not tend to color their maps, and what types of maps were usually issued colored or uncolored.  He should study also the different styles of color used throughout the history of printed maps,  including coloring differences between periods, nationalities, and individual map publishers.4  The more one can learn about these styles, the easier it is to make an initial determination as to the likelihood of any particular map having original or new color.


Along with a historical comparison of styles, there are other clues which a collector can look for in trying to determine the originality of a particular map’s color.5  However, other than using a chemical analysis of the pigments, all these clues are fallible and their application to particular examples are often difficult to judge.  One needs to have considerable experience in order to be able to accurately use these clues.  A collector should consult with dealers, curators and other collectors, both to help determine the originality of color in a particular instance and to add to his own knowledge.


The Hue Over New Color


New (recent, later) color is that which is added to a map after publication.  Ever since maps were first printed, some have had color added subsequent to their publication, so while all “new” color is later, it is not all recent.  Most new color was added to maps originally issued in black & white, but some was applied to maps which already had original color.  This was done either for the purpose of enhancing limited or pale color, or in order to replace original color which was washed out or faded.   New color has been added by owners, by professional illuminators, and by dealers.  New color has been added in order to enhance decorative appearance, for the pleasure of coloring, to replace lost original color, and for increased salability.


There is almost universal agreement that maps with original color are the most desirable, and certainly they command the highest prices.6  However, there is considerable disagreement concerning the relative desirability of maps found in other states.  Is an uncolored map preferable to a map with new color?  Should a collector favor a map with poorly done or faded original color compared to a map with attractive and appropriate new color?  Are there certain types of maps on which color of any sort is inappropriate?  Each collector must resolve these questions for himself.  In order to clarify the issues involved, it helps to break them down into four types: financial, historical, aesthetic, and collecting.


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.




The issues raised by new color on old maps are varied and complex.  While original color is clearly desirable, appropriate or even merely attractive new color is considered by many to be almost as desirable.  Some collectors feel that adding new color to a map is not problematic, while others feel that this should never be done.  For some purposes new color is inappropriate, but one cannot say that this is always the case.  It seems only reasonable to take a relativistic approach: each individual must decide for himself his purposes in map collecting and how those purposes relate to the issues of new color.9


Along with the theoretical reasons for such a relativistic approach, there is a very strong practical reason not to be dogmatic regarding new color on maps, viz. the difficulty in some cases of distinguishing between original and new color.  While there are clues which help to determine the originality of color, there are still instances where a definitive answer can come only through elaborate scientific means.  If a map has color which appears to be original, as best can be practically determined, does it really matter whether the color is indeed original or not?  And even if one knows the color on a particular map is new–because one saw it applied, say–, but for all appearances it looks original, does it really matter that it is not?


The historical arguments against adding new color to old maps are quite compelling.  Even if they do not lead to the conclusion that all new color is bad, there are still lessons to be drawn.  It is important that some examples of all maps be maintained in their original state.  Thus for very rare maps it is desirable not to add color to them.  It matters less whether one adds new color to a common map known to be held in its original state in a number of collections.


It is also important that, when known, the nature of the color on a particular map–that is whether it is original or new–should be identified.  As long as this information is provided, the historic record will not become distorted.  This is important not only for the maps themselves, but also for their printed images in books and magazines.  Unfortunately, such illustrations are often not labeled with this information, and there are many instances of illustrations of maps with new color which are not identified as such.10


There are no simple answers to questions about new color on old maps.  Each individual must decide for himself what approach to take.  While one collector might avoid maps with new color, another might just as appropriately decide that maps with attractive new color are preferable to uncolored maps.  The application of new color to maps is not wrong in all cases.  As long as it does not destroy or distort the history of maps, new color does little harm and can add pleasure for many in their pursuit of these interesting and beautiful objects.




1: A few maps in the 1511 Venice edition of Ptolemy’s Geography had place names printed in red.  The map of Lorraine in the 1513 Strassburg edition of the Geography was printed in three colors.  With these and a very few other exceptions, pre-nineteenth century maps were printed in black & white.


2: These volumes include Richard Tottill’s A very proper treatise, wherein is briefly sett forthe the art of Limming... (1573), Henry Peacham’s The Compleat Gentleman (1622), John Smith’s The Art of Painting in Oyl (1701) –which included a chapter entitled “The Whole Art and Mystery of Colouring Maps, and other Prints, in Water-Colours.”–, and Robert Dossie’s The Handmaid to the Arts (1764).


3: “Contemporary” is used to refer to coloring done at or about the time the map was originally issued.  Other terms often used include “original” or “period.”  This is contrasted to the terms “modern,” “new,” or “later,” which refer to color added subsequent to the time of publication.


4: See separate box for more about historical map color styles.


5: See separate box for a discussion on some of these clues.


6: There are some collectors who prefer uncolored maps in all circumstances, either to be better able to appreciate the quality of the engraving or for some other reason.  These collectors are in the great minority.


7:  Ulla Ehrensvärd’s article, “Color in Cartography: A Historical Survey” (Art and Cartography. Chicago, 1987.  Pp.12ff.), is a well-reasoned statement of this position.


8:  This example is used because John Speed’s maps have very often had new color applied to them, probably more than those of any other publisher.  Almost all were originally issued uncolored and almost all found today have been colored subsequently.


9: When I first entered the map trade, I was rather dogmatic about the undesirability of new color, and preached passionately about collecting maps only in their original form.  I soon found that not only did I scare some potential clients away from map collecting altogether, but I also ruined the pleasure of a number of collectors who already owned maps which probably had new color.  As map collecting is not an academic exercise, but a hobby to be enjoyed, I soon came to realize that my dogmatic stance was to no-one’s benefit.


10.  While most recent cartographic books tend to illustrate maps with original color, many picture some maps with either obviously new or at least suspect color without identifying them as such.  Cf. e.g. Portinario and Knirsch, The Cartography of North America (New York, 1987), Plate CXVII; Van Ermen, The United States In Old Maps and Prints (Wilmington, 1990), Plate 4; and Goss, The Mapmakers Art (Chicago, 1993), Plate 5.50.




Roger Baynton-Williams.  Investing In Maps.  New York, 1969.  Pp. 16ff.


Lloyd Brown.  The Story of Maps.  Boston, 1949.  Pp. 176ff.


Ulla Ehrensvärd.  “Color in Cartography: A Historical Survey.”  In Art and Cartography.  (David Woodward, editor.)  Pp.12ff.  Chicago, 1987.


John Goss.  The Mapmakers Art.  Rand McNally, 1993.  Pp. 349ff.


Raymond Lister.  Old Maps and Globes.  London, 1979.  Pp. 56ff.


Carl Moreland & David Bannister.  Christe’s Collectors Guides. Antique Maps.  Oxford, 1989 (third edition).  Pp. 13ff, pp. 281f.


Jonathan Potter.  Country Life Book Of Antique Maps.  London, 1988.  Pp.19f.


Jon K. Rosenthal.  Antique Map Price Record & Handbook For 1993.  Amherst, 1993.  P. 10.


R.A. Skelton.  Decorative Printed Maps Of The 15th To 18th Centuries.  London, [1952]-1965.  Pp. 19f.


Color Styles on Old Maps


Maps from different periods and regions tend to have distinct coloring styles.  While exceptions are numerous, most colored maps from these places and times would have been illuminated in the following styles:


15th & early 16th Century wood block maps


These maps were usually issued uncolored.

When colored, they have thick, flat washes.


15th & 16th Century Italian engraved maps


These exquisitely engraved maps were usually issued without color.


16th & early 17th Century Dutch engraved maps


Typical use of thick, opaque tints, some with “Chinese white” mixed in.

Outlines were done with wide color bands, and full washes were used within the outlined areas.

Cartouches were usually fully colored.

Greens have often oxidized, turning brownish and brittle.


17th Century Dutch engraved maps


Thinner outline color.  When used, area color was done with lighter, transparent washes.

Cartouches were usually fully colored, often with more color than map body.

Gold and silver highlights used for special maps.


Late 17th & 18th Century French and English engraved maps


Light outline color used to identify political divisions, though many maps were issued without color.
Though not usual, when area color was applied it was done with an even, transparent wash.

Cartouches were usually uncolored.


18th Century German engraved maps


Heavy, flat area color used on body of maps.

Cartouches usually uncolored.1


19th Century lithographed maps


Strong body color, often applied using a stencil.

Usually with uncolored and utilitarian cartouches.


1: Johann Hüber of Hamburg wrote in Museum geographicum (1726) that color should be used only for functional purposes, such as for emphasizing or distinguishing different sections or areas of the region mapped.  (Cf. Ehrensvärd, p. 137f.)  The Germans particularly followed this advice, though French and English cartographers also tended to use less color in the eighteenth century




1. Is the color appropriate to the period and publisher?


While some maps were colored in an atypical manner at the time of publication, inappropriate color is an initial clue that the color is not original.


2. Is the color skillful and of professional quality?


As most original color was applied by skilled illuminators who made their living coloring maps, the general quality of original color is quite high.  Sloppy coloring or coloring inappropriate to the information on the map are both clues indicating that the color is not original.  Many maps colored recently are beautifully and appropriately colored, and some original color is maladroit, but in general a map with poorly done color is likely not to have original color.


3. Is the color uniform within the map?  Within the atlas?


For the same reasons mentioned above, original color would have been uniformly applied for each map individually and to all the maps from a single atlas.


4. Does the color bleed through to the verso of the map?


Maps with new color were sometimes inadequately sized, so that the color bleeds through to the back of the map.  This rarely happened to maps with original color.  Color bleeding should be distinguished from color oxidation (cf. next clue).


5.  Is there oxidation evident from the greens on the verso of the map?


In the 16th and 17th centuries, greens were made from verdigris (copper acetate), which oxidizes over time with exposure to light and humidity.  This oxidation results in a brownish shadow of the green color (to be distinguished from color bleeding, cf. clue above) coming through to the back of the map.  This clue is very useful but not conclusive, for many greens used on maps were not made from verdigris and not all the greens made from verdigris show signs of oxidation.  To further complicate matters, a method of duplicating the effect of this oxidation has been perfected so as to make modern color look original.


6.  Is there evidence of color being applied after restoration?


If a map has been cleaned, it will often lose any original color it had, especially certain fugitive shades like red.  If a map shows evidence of having been cleaned–whiteness of paper or a chemical smell–then there is a good chance the color has been added after that restoration.  If color is applied on top of repaired tears or holes, this is a clear indication that the color is new.



Author:   Chris Lane
Phone: 215 242 4750
E-mail: Ask for Details

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Michael Mercator. "America sive India Nova." Amsterdam, 1609.
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Joan Blaeu. "Oxonium Comitatus, Vulgo Oxfordshire." Amsterdam, 1645.
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Georg Marthaus Seutter. "Terra Sancta Vocata." Augsburg, 1744.

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