Superb manuscript physical atlas, by a British convent student

Clara O’Neil, [Hand-drawn physical atlas including 27 maps and plans and 18 astronomical and geological diagrams.] St. Leonards-on-Sea (Hastings), East Sussex, England, 1876.
Oblong sketchbook (8 ¾”h x 11”w) with 47 leaves of heavy wove paper, of which 46 bear original content on rectos only, all executed in pen-and-ink and watercolor. Half-titles and all captions written in a very fine ornamental Gothic Fraktur. One recto and five versos decorated with pasted-on chromolithographic cards and die-cuts not germane to the manuscript material. Bound in half black calf over pebbled cloth boards, Ms. O’Neil’s initials in gilt on front board. Scattered light soiling to contents, one map with abrasion costing small surface loss.

An especially lovely 19th-century manuscript physical atlas by a young woman at an English convent school, strikingly detailed and rendered with precision and sensitivity in the choice of watercolors.

In the 19th century map copying was an important educational method at the primary level, seen as valuable both for the development of geographic knowledge as well as the skills of penmanship, drafting and drawing. Maps and even complete atlases by American and British schoolboys and -girls are thus frequently encountered on the market, but the great majority are rather predictable in content and pedestrian in execution. By contrast, for its sheer volume and variety of content, precision of execution and appealing use of color the atlas offered here is extraordinary, by some measures the finest example of “school” cartography I have seen.

The atlas was compiled by Ms. Clara O’Neil, a student at the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus in St. Leonards-on-Sea (now Hastings) in East Sussex, England. The convent was established in 1848 by the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, a Catholic teaching order founded by American Cornelia Connelly (1809-1879), a Philadelphia native who had converted to Catholicism. The convent closed some time after the Second World War, though the Society remains active today and operates schools in Africa, the Americas and Europe.

The atlas is divided into four sections: “Geographical Series,” “Topographical Series,” Geological Series,” and “Astronomical Series,” consisting of a total 27 maps and plans and 18 astronomical and geological diagrams. The first section begins with six thematic world maps depicting the major mountain systems and bodies of water, as well as the distribution of volcanoes, hurricanes and winds, important flora, and “races of men.” These are followed by a map of Great Britain, two diagrams of the “Distribution of Animals [and Plants] in a Vertical Elevation,” and an interesting circular map of the world as known to the ancient Greeks. Most of these were likely copied from one or another of the “Physical Atlases” that became prevalent in the third quarter of the 19th century. For example, Ms. O’Neil’s “Map showing the distribution of volcanoes, &c” resembles one in Alexander Johnston’s Physical Atlas of Natural Phenomena (Edinburgh and London, 1856). The diagrams of the distribution of animals and plants “in a vertical elevation” closely match two insets on maps in Sidney Hall and William Hughes’ General Atlas of the World (Edinbugh, 1854).

The “Topographical Series” is more of a gemisch, including maps of the Orkney and Shetland Islands, Jersey, Man, and Greenland. These are followed by maps of Biblical subjects (Old and New Testament), including a finely-rendered plan of Jerusalem. Rounding out this group are two lovely little plans of the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus where Ms. O’Neil studied, executed in a pleasing mix of green, pink and yellow washes.

The “Geological Series” begins with six diagrams of geological strata, most with extensive explanatory text rendered in Ms. O’Neil’s characteristic tiny hand. These are followed by geological maps of Ireland, Scotland, England and the world. The atlas concludes with the “Astronomical Series,” with ten diagrams explaining the Moon’s phases, the “sidereal and sunodical revolution of the Moon,” tides, eclipses, &c. Of these, the most striking is a circular diagram of the Zodiac and a working volvelle enabling one to determine “the different hours at different places.”

The sheer amount of material and the care with which it is rendered suggest that the atlas must have taken an enormous amount of effort and time on Ms. O’Neil’s part, certainly justifying the attractive half-calf binding and the prominent placement of her initials in gilt on the front board. In all, an extraordinary schoolgirl atlas, well worthy of further study to identify her source material and place the work in the context of the educational program at St. Leonards-on-Sea.


Minor wear and damp staining to binding, and scattered light soiling within. Overall better than very good.