Jonathan Potter has had a fascinating career as a seller of antique maps, charts, plans, atlases, globes and reference books. He was the owner of Jonathan Potter Limited, a company that traded in London and Bath for over 50 years. Now retired, he’s still passionate and knowledgeable about antique maps. We catch up with him to find out more about his time in the trade and what he’s learned over the years.

How did you get into the antique maps trade?

My parents were very keen on antiques, and I also got the bug for collecting things. I didn’t know what I was going to collect until I came across antique maps at London’s Portobello Road Market as a teenager. Later, I began working for an antique maps company in London and my interest further developed from there. Eventually, I outgrew working for someone else and I started my own business. I set it up in central London and later moved the business to Bath. I’m very lucky to have been able to pursue something which could be regarded as a hobby, but that I was able to get paid for. I’ve had a very happy working life.

Your shop also sold ‘cartographic curiosities’. Tell us a more about these…

Maps have often been used in the past to decorate all manner of things – mugs, plates, ash trays, decorative china. We sold all sorts of cartographic curiosities. Maps were added to these items for interest and amusement, rather than for practical purposes.

Do you still indulge in your love of maps now you’re retired?

Yes. I’m one of the original members of the International Map Collectors’ Society. I joined when it was founded and remain a member to this day. I enjoy reading their publications and attending their meetings and lectures. It’s worth checking out if you’re interested in old maps. Each year, I also go to the London Map Fair, which attracts map dealers, collectors, librarians and curators from around the world.

Do you have a personal collection of antique maps?

For practical reasons I had to sell the maps I would have most liked to have kept. I saw my job more as a custodian of the maps than as their owner. I looked after maps and brought them to people across all parts of the world.

Why do you think antique maps have such a timeless appeal?

They capture a period when there weren’t any newspapers, nor the general literacy level there is now. There was nothing like the current media coverage of local or world events. Antique maps are one of the few records still available that illustrate what the world was like. For example, think of an early 17th century map, perhaps decorated with images of local animals and landmarks. For a lot of people, these would have been the first images they’d ever seen of different parts of the world. It would have been revolutionary to them.

What are the benefits of purchasing antique maps?

Very simply, enjoyment! You can also spend any amount of money to suit your budget.

What factors influence the price of an antique map?

Prices depend on the rarity of the map, its condition, decorative elements and the area it shows. If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the Welsh counties with a small population, you could buy a map for a fraction of the price of a map of a densely populated area with great spending power, such as the home counties. Prices vary according to demand, among other reasons.

Do you have a favourite map maker?

I find myself drawn to maps from the early 17th century, particularly Dutch publications. They’re elegantly engraved and were created at a time of world discovery. Equally, I can look at an early Ordnance Survey map of where I live and see all sorts of fascination in that.

What are the most bizarre maps you’ve ever come across?

Many antique maps that are sought after are pretty bizarre, I’d say! The practice of caricaturing became very popular in the 18th century, and this led to maps that had countries in animal and human shapes. Map makers would show the Russian Empire as an octopus, with its tentacles spreading throughout Europe. Other maps were anti-French or anti-English in the caricatures they created. Earlier maps might feature strange creatures, that were based on actual animals but turned into something monstrous. There’s a famous map of Iceland surrounded by sea creatures, drawn in a way to scare and impress.

What’s the most interesting antique map you’ve ever come across?

It’s very difficult to say. I suppose the most interesting from a historical point of view, would be the very early maps of North America. They may not look interesting to someone who doesn’t have an understanding of maps, but they’ve got historical significance.

Where would you recommend people go in the UK to view antique maps?

There aren’t that many permanent displays but the British Library in St Pancras, London has some maps and, from time to time, some very fine exhibitions. Another place I always enjoy going to is the American Museum & Gardens in Bath. The owner was a map collector, and it has a very good collection of maps. At Hereford Cathedral you can also see the Hereford Mappa Mundi, one of the world’s cartographic treasures. I’d also look at the International Map Collectors’ Society. It has a diary of what’s happening around the UK and further afield.

Further advice and information about antique maps can be found at Jonathan Potter Limited.

Looking to build an antique maps collection? Here are Jonathan’s top tips for preserving your maps:

  • Handle your maps carefully.
  • Go to a reputable framer to get your maps framed.
  • Choose a frame with glass that offers UV protection, to ensure maps’ colours don’t fade.
  • Avoid hanging maps on walls that are prone to damp.
  • Ensure antique maps aren’t kept in excessively hot and dry environments, such as above a fireplace or radiator.

Header photo by Ylanite Koppens

 

You might also enjoy our post on Wall Maps.

Dennis Maps is one of the leading map printers in the world, producing more than two million maps and charts every year. We offer comprehensive pre-press services, large format print solutions using both large format litho printing and large format digital print technologies, plus specialised map folding and map finishing techniques.

Please share