The Color of Old Maps, Part 1

By: Chris Lane • Feb 22, 2012 • 0 Comments

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 maps.


The results of this “contemporary” 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.  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.  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.  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.