Bartholomew Cartographers

The Bartholomew Cartographic Tradition

Brother John was the sixth and last generation of the Bartholomew cartographic dynasty. When he died in 2008, The Times obituary gave an inaccurate description of his role in the firm. The history of the firm that Peter commissioned, Bartholomew – 150 Years by Leslie Gardner, published in 1973, needed updating. So I wrote an eight page postscript to cover the last generation with a more balanced record of the family. John Jr. did not get the write-up in the official history, he deserved, compared to his more celebrated son, John George. The family myth is that the Bartholomews were Huguenot refugees who came to Scotland after the massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day (1572). Certainly many of the Huguenots were craftsmen. John took the broad view in his excellent article in the Dictionary of National Biography* that the Bartholomew dynasty started in the 18th century with George. His article complements the firm’s official history Bartholomew — 150 Years# (which could be called “180 Years”). To summarise the family history: we talk of six generations of Bartholomews. George (1784–1871) should be considered the founder of the dynasty. In 1797 he was apprenticed to the well-known Edinburgh engraver Daniel Lizars, becoming an independent engraver in 1806, while continuing to work for Lizars. He worked on John Lothian’s plans of Edinburgh and Leith and his County Atlas of Scotland. He was an engraver in both steel and copper for 60 years, and latterly worked for his father, John Sr (1805–1861), who set up his own business in 1826. This is often regarded as the beginning of the family firm, as George did not have his own map business. George outlived his father by a decade. For a time there were three generations working together – John, his father and his sons. John Sr was a master copper plate engraver, who engraved some fine maps for local firms, like street maps for Lizars, others for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and for some educational publishers like A & C Black. He was a pioneer, encouraging his son to make contacts abroad and learn from the German school of cartography. He trained several of his sons, one of whom, Henry, engraved the Lord’s Prayer on the polished back of a sixpenny bit, which I had in my coin collection. John Sr was the ideal person to inaugurate what became one of the most admired cartographic institutions in the world. A man of high standards, as were his successors; he was a superb engraver, and engraving became the foundation of the firm. Lithography would follow later. He also had the vision to see the potential for the firm. He was a shy man, holding back from public life. Just before John Sr died in 1859, he passed the business on to his son John Jr. (1831–1898), who expanded it significantly with noisy, steam driven ‘flat-bed’ lithographic printing presses, in which huge blocks of limestone trundled back and forth with a great shudder. The latter part of the nineteenth century was a time of exploration and colonial expansion. Teaching about this expanding world blossomed in all the schools with a demand for school atlases. This was a very profitable market, with large print numbers and reprints, and many different editions. (Oxford Press ordered school atlases in some six different languages for India alone – eg Urdu, Marathi, etc). Bartholomew also produced large numbers of maps and many new atlases for Scottish publishers. The Comparative Atlas (1898) went through 50 editions and was still in print when I was running Meiklejohn in 1954. John Jr was creative and saw the potential of the firm to create cartography as a social benefit rather than just a printed product. In the late 1870s he introduced a pioneering system of showing height by changing the colour between contours: delicate greens and browns for plains and foothills, darker browns for high ground, white for mountain tops and blue for water depth (layer colouring). This took time to catch on, but was the basis of all Bartholomew cartography to follow. He greatly enriched his firm’s tradition and its reputation for accurate, painstaking cartography. Geography, travel and the study of maps were now popular. His main contribution was to negotiate with Ordnance Survey (O.S.) to drop their half-inch to the mile series and let Bartholomew produce two national series of sheet maps, reduced from the O.S. one-inch. These popular series of a quarter- and a half-inch to the mile, contributed significantly to the popularisation of maps and their study. He also saw the potential of maps on specialised themes (eg a map of diseases), which his son, John George (JGB) was to expand. Johns Sr and Jr worked very hard; they both developed illnesses in mid-life. John Jr loved travel, and after John George joined the business in 1879, he spent much time abroad visiting business contacts. In 1885 he completed a tour of the USA (we have his journal). There was friendly competition between Bartholomew’s and George Philip of Liverpool. Connected through marriage, Philip’s suggestion of a merger met with a cool response, as much because John’s roots were in Edinburgh as his need for independence. His son later turned down other approaches in the 1890s. Bartholomew was clearly the success story of cartography.

  •  Introduced layer colouring (eg Lake District One-inch for Baddeley’s Guide, 1880
  •  Negotiated use of O.S. one-inch as the base for two series of sheet maps of the UK
  •  Brought in lithography, printing detailed anatomical and botanical illustrations as well as maps
  •  Developed a large product range for schools, especially in atlases
  • Introduced maps with specialised themes
  •  Produced 19 atlases and 16 map publications
  • John George (1860–1920) succeeded his father in 1888 and built on his rich range of maps and atlases, bringing the firm to its zenith with many innovations, and a series of distinguished specialised atlases (Meteorology, Climatology, World’s Commerce, Zoogeography, Historical Geography of the Holy Land, [The Moon came later, in 1969]). He counted many household names (academics and writers) as his friends. He completed the 63 sheet half-inch series in 1903 which, with the popularity of cycling, the advent of the motorcycle and then the car, became the firm’s bread and butter for two generations.

John George expanded the printing department to cope with the increased demand for maps, from his father’s three steam presses, to 14 gas driven flat-beds, first at Park Road and then at Duncan Street (single colour presses, 800 sheets/hr, one still in use in 1970s). His flair was to recognise which titles could become bestsellers that would be reprinted ten or more times. The print numbers increased (half a million London plans for the 1897 jubilee celebrations; 225,000 timetable maps for the L&NW Railway.) But John George also took on really big projects, some of which like the Survey Atlases of Scotland (1885) and England (1904) on a half-inch scale, taxed the firm’s resources. His great accomplishment was The Times Survey Atlas of the World. Sadly, he did not live to see its publication. His son, Ian, brought it out soon after his untimely death. John George inherited his father’s desire to make international contacts. He was a co-founder the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS). He also financed a lectureship and then a readership of geography at Edinburgh University. (He had been a student of geology.) It was his son who saw his dream realised of the establishment of its first chair of geography. His poor health prevented him from pursuing his father’s love of travel. Instead he did it remotely, by summoning the great explorers to come and lecture in Edinburgh. There were still vast unmapped areas of the world, so John George became a virtual explorer. He was reserved and studious and his insistence on accuracy and quality in all his work made him an exacting employer. But John George was a benevolent one, organising recreational activities for his staff and a unique profit-sharing scheme (unheard of at the time). He was ambitious and his life displayed a kind of élan that contributed to the success of his business: as with his renting as the family home the extravagant Palladian house of Falcon Hall and, following its demolition, making its impressive pillared frontage the main feature of his new Geographical Institute in Duncan Street. Do look at the photos on the family website@ to get an impression of this!

    • Changed the emphasis of the company from printing for other publishers to building up his own list of publications, increasing profitability
    • Completed the half-inch series of 62 maps covering the UK
  • A balance between bread & butter lines with major projects like The Times Survey Atlas of the World


  • Produced 33 atlases (some in several editions) & published 40 maps
  • Published the quarter-inch series separately, of England, Scotland & Ireland
  • Firm became an international institution, winning medals at exhibitions, and also for himself
  •      In 1910, he was awarded the royal warrant as geographer and cartographer to the King, which continued with his son Ian until the latter’s death in 1962. John (Ian) (1890–1962) was very creative in his own way; his introduction of modern rotary printing presses, his designs of new map projections; his initiation of the World Series and an important family of atlases were seminal. He brought out the impressive Mid-Century edition of the Times Atlas in five volumes. This was largely tactical and to spread the enormous investment, Vol 3 (Europe) came out in 1955, the last 5 years later. Acknowledging that this was unwieldy, he subsequently designed a one-volume edition, The Times Comprehensive (I proposed the title), which was not published until after his death.
  • The German school of cartography was pre-eminent, and three generations of Bartholomews widened their knowledge by studying with the German masters. John Jr studied for two years (1855) with Augustus Petermann. John George’s son Ian had studied in Leipzig (1907-8) with the master Oswald Winkel, and his grandson, John Christopher, carried on the tradition, sitting at the feet of Edouard Imhof the great Swiss cartographer, in Berne and Zurich in 1960.

A shy man, he did not push himself forward. I think he must have found JGB a hard act to follow, but he did extremely well, keeping the firm a household name. He kept up his father’s association with the RSGS, first as Secretary, then as President.  He and his father were justly honoured, both with LL.D.s from Edinburgh University, JGB with the royal warrant, and Ian with the CBE. (Incidentally, all four Johns suffered from ill health in middle age: JGB had a life-long struggle with tuberculosis and Dad rheumatoid arthritis.)

  • Saw through publication of The Times Survey Atlas of the World
  • Developed the Mid-Century & the Comprehensive editions of The Times Atlas
  • Arranged the Half-inch series of Scotland and of England & W. into a national series of 62 maps and the Quarter inch into a national series of 22 map 16 different national editions s
  • Published 15 major atlases, many in multi-editions (eg Road Atlas of Gt Britain – 22 editions) and 27 maps
  • Developed the idea of the Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas (16 different national editions)
  • Created a series of brilliant new map projections – better ways to portray a round globe on a flat surface.
  • 1938 introduced modern rotary offset printing machines, esp the famous Rolands (cost over £1.5 m. ea.: 4-col. presses, 4,000 sheets/hr – output x 20 of flat-beds)
  • Leslie Gardiner, the researcher and author of 150 Years, makes the point that the Bartholomew family has, over the years, demonstrated the importance of mutual respect between the generations, which helped to ensure a smooth transition. What is moving is how a son in each case would see through what his father had started. Some of these were dauntingly big projects. So, for example, John Sr negotiated with the Ordnance Survey the right to reproduce two series of sheet maps reduced from their One-inch benchmark series, and got it started; John George then saw through this mammoth challenge. Or the Times Atlas project, at least as complex, was initiated by John George and almost completed on his death. His son Ian saw it published, and started work at once on the Mid-Century edition (5 vols), only to produce the more commercially viable Comprehensive edition in 1967, still based on copper plate origination, with several reprints.

My memory of going to “the office” in the 1940s and ‘50s was of it being like an alchemical laboratory full of magic; where the staff had this quiet respect and admiration for my dad. (Copper plate hand engraving – fascinating to watch – was the source of origination, and maps were folded by hand.) Returning in the late 1960s it was still a hive of activity. It was exciting to see the presses whirling (and the smell of printer’s ink) and the new productions coming out, but there was a different atmosphere, maybe the product of a more marketing oriented business climate. After doing my national service I went up to Cambridge for three years (geography & geology). I then this felt the need to get away to see a bit of the world, and got a scholarship to the University of Chicago to study business administration. My dad was something of a romantic. He wanted all of his sons in the business, and had this dream that I should open up a sales office in the USA. While working as a college commissioning salesman at McGraw Hill in New York, I did some atlas market surveys. When I returned, Dad offered me instead a job in London with Meiklejohn. The changeover to our generation was not so smooth. There was no one in the family who was able to continue the level of cartographic innovation demonstrated by the previous three Johns. Brother John (Christopher) (1923-2008) had started as cartographer in 1949, after an initial apprenticeship while he completed his geography degree. He became cartographic director in 1953. Robbie also joined the firm in 1953 after a printing course, an apprenticeship, and spending time in London with the firm’s wholesalers. He became production director in 1955. . I was sharing a flat with Peter at the time in London. We would congratulate each other on escaping the family firm’s net. Dad’s energy was diminishing by the mid 1950s. He could see that John lacked managerial skills and became concerned for the future continuity of the business. Then in 1956 he issued a call to Peter , whom he wanted to return to Edinburgh to take over management of the firm. Peter responded without rancour; his qualities included duty and responsibility. John and Robbie were in place as cartographic and printing directors. Meiklejohn was a Glasgow educational publisher that took on several Bartholomew school atlases. It got into financial trouble after the war, and my dad bought it out to protect the atlases. When I returned from my first years in America in 1954, he offered me Meiklejohn (by then in London) to manage, so that I could get my teeth into publishing. Robbie had earlier spent a year there. I ran it for four years until it was sold to Oliver & Boyd of Edinburgh in 1958, when I returned to the USA. Robbie (1927–) learned well from Willie Dickson, production manager, who served the company loyally for 53 years until his retirement in 1967, and succeeded him to become a very competent head of production. Peter (1924–1987) was a very able managing director, working very hard to learn this complex business, his background having been accountancy and running one of Garfield Weston’s bakeries. His brothers by now were well experienced in their own areas of the business, and his skill was the ability sensitively to get the managers to work as a team. In 1961 he appointed David Cunningham as financial director. But in the late ‘60s he had one heart attack after another, and realised he had to slow down. So in 1969 Peter headhunted David Ross Stewart, who had had broad managerial experience, to be managing director, and Mike Chittleburgh in 1972 as marketing director. It was Bartholomew’s first marketing department, with ten national sales reps. In the 1960s (and into the ‘70s) there was more emphasis on contracted printing work, like The Times Moon Atlas (1969), The Times Atlas of World History (1978) and the huge Reader’s Digest series of some 16 national atlases (1961+), where the cartography was not done in-house. This kept Robbie very busy. A decision was taken, in 1972, to give up the very successful Half-inch series (was the lettering too small now?) in favour of the larger scale of 1:100,000 – actually the Half-inch enlarged for greater legibility, with new place names photoset instead of engraved, and the same sheet numbers. Was this decision carefully enough considered? It turned out to be a costly disaster, for the new National Series, as it was called, never began to reach the popularity of the Half-inch (marketing shortcomings?), and was discontinued (too precipitously?) by Reader’s Digest after a few years. There were three types of product: Our own publications – the sheet maps and some of the atlases – originated in-house, which kept the drawing office busy. They had a good profit margin and were Bartholomew’s bread and butter. Then there were products prepared for other publishers for which some or all of the maps were prepared in-house; they produced a smaller margin. Lastly came the contract work for which Bartholomew did only the printing. The margin on these was much smaller, as we had to compete with other quality printers, latterly even from overseas. In an effort to regain a better margin, the firm launched a trade book list in the 1970s, mainly regional guides with some maps and a series of popular handbooks on hobbies. They were not the hoped-for money-spinners; hobbies were a subject that most big publishers felt they had to cover. Profits continued to be squeezed. John Christopher was a fastidious and knowledgeable editor and a skilled cartographer. He continued the work of his father and grandfather as a contributor to geographical and cartographic conferences and was highly respected in international circles. He continued their commitments to the RSGS, at different times being Secretary, Vice-President and President (constituting a total of 104 years of continuous family service). He lectured widely (even in French). His ultimate contribution was to organise the transfer of The Bartholomew Archive to the Scottish National Library. A habitual procrastinator, John did not respond well to schedules. This bothered both Peter and David. It was partly a difference in personality; John was more of a scholarly and artistic bent, Peter and David essentially practical men of business. Tensions were created on the board, particularly in the 1970s that, together with Peter’s first stroke, made it inevitable that the family would have to give up control. With continuing ill health, Peter must have felt that there would be no one of his determination, commitment and ability to turn the firm around. When Peter announced his decision to sell to Reader’s Digest, several of the family shareholders objected, and I offered to request a special directors’ meeting in 1979 at which I could present these objections. Peter didn’t like being challenged. It caused bad feeling, and the deal went ahead anyway. Robbie and John were not comfortable with the decision, but felt there was no alternative. To my great sadness, this remained unfinished business between Peter and me. Bartholomew’s was by then a very modern plant, with equipment and goodwill worth millions. Unfortunately the firm had lost some of its momentum, and was in a weak position financially. Specialist firms are harder to sell, and the price obtained was disappointing. In hindsight, I still feel Reader’s Digest was the wrong (single range agenda) partner, not really interested in the Bartholomew map tradition. After the 1980 sale, a Reader’s Digest director, Jack O’Hara, was appointed. David Ross Stewart effectively ran the company, and Peter took a back seat. After a second stroke in 1983, he came in just to open the post, something to keep himself occupied. Eventually Pleasantville (RD’s hq) lost confidence in O’Hara; he was fired and RD decided also to shed his favourite baby, Bartholomew, which was then acquired in 1986 by Rupert Murdoch’s New Times International, and merged with their new subsidiary, William Collins of Glasgow. The Bartholomew board resigned, and John was asked to continue as cartographic advisor to Collins. This he found difficult, because decisions were taken without reference to him, and by 1990 John retired for good, though he kept up some of his contacts in the geographical world. Peter died in 1987. Traditional family businesses often find difficulty in adapting to a modern market-driven economy. Few are able to make the transition successfully. This challenge was particularly hard for an artistic and craftsman-based company like Bartholomew, but it was amplified in the 1960s by the market’s change in taste through several companies producing a simpler style in maps. The firm was not able to adapt quickly enough or to compete with the introduction of a raft of large format, low priced road atlases and new, well-designed popular map series. There was also an attitude problem. They had for 150 years been the trend setter, and the name was so equated with quality mapping that there had been no real challengers. They were not adequately prepared for the free and rapidly expanding market of the 1960s and ‘70s. Living in Edinburgh before 1960, everyone recognised the name Bartholomew. By 1980 only a few older folk did. Map reading is hardly taught at all at school now, and the computer-raised generation can barely read a map, much preferring to be guided by a hand-held GPS monitor (which doesn’t tell you what the land is like). However, before John died, he negotiated with the National Library of Scotland to take over the portable parts and file copies of the firm to set up an archive in Edinburgh. In 2013, although no Bartholomew maps had been sold for over 30 years, over 65,000 people flocked to the first exhibition. It seems that Edinburgh folk are very loyal to their sons, particularly those with creative and skilled contributions to make. Peter had the prescience to commission a history of the firm by Leslie Gardner which was published in 1976. It is a lovely book, beautifully illustrated with coloured maps. The text is balanced and more than adequate, though I wish it was more detailed and extensive. The Epilogue (2008) brings it up to date. The Bartholomew saga is fascinating, and I feel privileged to have been part of it. Alick Bartholomew, Wellow, 26 Mar ‘15   * “Bartholomew Family (1805 – 1986)” for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004 #   Bartholomew – 150 Years, (111pp), by Leslie Gardiner, Bartholomew, Edinburgh, 1976 @  

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