In Memory

Rodney Shirley

RODNEY W. SHIRLEY (1928-2017)

With the passing of Rodney Shirley on 4 March at the age of 88, carto-bibliography lost one of its undeniable giants.  His output was characterised by both fearlessness and determination.  ‘God helps those who help themselves’ was a maxim he lived by.  It is thoroughly suitable that one of his articles was devoted to Mount Everest, since he took on challenges that others would have baulked at and then, despite the unexpected obstacles, pressed on to triumphant conclusion.  One of his books took eight years of research, another commanded his time for sixteen.

Two of his major publications reflected his personal collecting interests: maps of the British Isles and the world.  In the interview, he gave to Valerie Scott (now Newby) for The Map Collector, 14 in 1981 he explained that his earliest foray into map history, ‘Early Printed Maps of the British Isles 1477-1650’, was prompted by his failure to find a suitable guide on the shelves of the British Library.  Originally published in five sections in ‘Mick’ Tooley’s Map Collectors’ Circle’ (1972-4), it migrated afterwards into book form in 1980. 

No bibliography can ever be complete but the best of them become even more relevant with the release of subsequent updates.  This occurred with the British Isles book, to which a 1650-1750 supplement appeared in 1988.  It also applied to his world map catalogue, where the most recent ‘corrigenda and addenda’, in 2012, represented, fittingly, his final cartographic contribution.

The Mapping of the World: Early Printed World Maps 1472-1700 9 (1993, as on his personal copy, not the usually cited 1994) is a colossal monument to one man’s enterprise and dedication. Not just because of its generous format and the 639 maps it meticulously describes – almost all of them illustrated, and at a useful size – but also for the intelligent and helpful way that the information was gathered and presented.  I am sure that Philip Burden will happily acknowledge the debt owed to Rodney for the structure of his own masterpiece, the two-volume The Mapping of North America.

Sadly, there are some publications that are so full of gaps and errors that comment seems pointless. In the case of TMOTW – that it had its own acronym is fitting – anybody who could add a new map or variant (while only rarely managing to point out a mistake) felt proud to provide material for his updates. My copy is annotated with those afterthoughts, but they are surprisingly few.

When I wrote to Umberto Eco about the world map that has a central role in his Foucault’s Pendulum and referred him to the 1581 Guillaume Postel world map (Shirley 144 – no further reference is needed), he told me he knew Rodney’s book, but amazingly, had not made the obvious connection with that strange and complex map.

By definition, there can be no more universal cartographic topic than maps of the world.  Where other cataloguers might have restricted themselves to the bald bibliographical facts, Rodney, while fully mastering those, ranged far and wide to give his entries added context and meaning.

His own life up to that point gives indications as to why that should be so.  He was born in 1928 and went to Stowe School (where he would subsequently give tours of the celebrated grounds). With the teaching staff depleted by the war he received an inadequate education, but this made him all the more determined to fill the gaps for himself later.  He served for two years in the Royal Engineers (during military service) before Cambridge University. The topics he studied there, Natural Sciences and then English, provided suitable springboards: first, for a succession of jobs in industry (Metal Box and Thomas Tilling), a spell with McKinsey, and his later secondment to the Department of Trade and Industry, as part of the ‘Enterprise Initiative Scheme’, and second for his subsequent writing. He also spent two years doing an MBA at Harvard.

He and his wife Barbara travelled widely and ambitiously – trekking in the Himalayas, for example. He always relished new experiences and eagerly sought out information on almost any subject.  Courtiers and Cannibals, Angels and Amazons: the Art of the Decorative Cartographic Titlepage (2009), his final book, is a delightful show-piece for his eclectic knowledge.

The range of his articles, typically for The Map Collector and later the Journal of the International Map Collectors’ Society (IMCoS), whose first president he became in 1980, is astonishingly wide. All were undertaken with the aim to throw new light on the topic in question.  The following random selection of the subjects he investigated gives the flavour of his output:  a map of Japan on a porcelain plate, the mapping of Corfu, cartographers’ portraits concealed in maps and title-pages, ethnographic maps of Germany, old atlases in the library of Vilnius University, and pioneers of the thematic atlas.  Specifically for map collectors he shared his experience of ‘judging a map’s condition’, while ‘Rodney Shirley’s ten key points for maps collectors’, appeared in The Portolan 67 (2000) and 76 (2009).

All the publications prior to his retirement in 1988 were the result of research carried out during evenings and weekends.  On the other hand, his final monumental project, Maps in the Atlases of the British Library: A Descriptive Catalogue c. AD 850 – 1800 (2004), was allowed to engage his full attention. Formed of two large volumes, with a potential third represented by a CD index, this has the status of what I term a ‘definitive’ publication. Like his British Isles and world catalogues, even if they were amplified later, none of the three would ever be redone.

The need for that work stemmed from the British Library’s ancestral cataloguing rules, which decreed that descriptions of atlases or books would not extend to the maps within them.  Decreeing that an ‘atlas’ would be defined as any book containing at least nine maps, Rodney set to work. By the end he had tripled the number of relevant volumes of which we were aware (to 3,200) and listed 56,000 maps.  Thanks to his efforts, the distinction between a book of maps, and a book with maps was removed, and with it a major barrier to research.  As before, there was the typical range and depth of Rodney’s contextual notes and accompanying comments, on such varied topics as bindings, acquisition stamps, thematic atlases and – ideal for those seeking illustrations – a listing of atlases in fine colour. 

As I pointed out in my Preface: “It is without question that the Atlas Collation Project represents far and away the most generous contribution of time and expertise ever received by the Map Library of the British Museum/British Library, in its long history.” 

It is obvious that Rodney Shirley will be much missed, but that is a wholly inadequate judgement here. Rather we should wonder if comparable individual achievements in our field, requiring both total dedication and wide-ranging expertise, are ever likely to be repeated.

---Tony Campbell, Map Librarian of the British Library (1986-2001). Photo courtesy of Matthew Shirley.