The lighthouses of Great Britain and Ireland … a tour de force of data visualization

A. G. Findlay, A Chart Exhibiting the LIGHT HOUSES AND LIGHT VESSELS ON THE COASTS OF GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND; also those on the N.W. Coasts of Europe BETWEEN USHANT AND BERGEN. London: R. H. Laurie, by order of the Honble the Corporation of Trinity House, Jan. 1, 1863.
Engraving, wash and spot color. Segmented and laid on linen, 50 1h x 55 ¼”w at neat line plus margins. Folds into original presentation binder with handsome brass clasps and title and Trinity House seal on both boards. Some light foxing, small spot of grey pigment. in North Sea. Binder rebacked, retaining original spine, with new front endpaper.

A rare tour de force of data visualization, depicting with elegance and visual economy the intensity and sweep of the lighthouses of Great Britain, and Ireland and the North Sea.

As a nation that lived and died by the sea, in a region often wracked by bad weather, it was no wonder that by the mid-19th century almost every inch of Great Britain’s coast was illuminated by at least one lighthouse. Indeed these aids to navigation were so vital that already in 1514 Henry VIII established the Corporation of Trinity House, whose armorial crest, four ships in the corners of a St. Georg’s cross, appears above the title of this chart. The Corporation was, and remains, responsible for the provision and maintenance of lighthouses and other navigational aids, such as light-vessels, buoys, and maritime radio/satellite communication systems. It is also an official deep-sea pilotage authority, providing expert navigators for ships trading in Northern European waters.

True to its mission, beginning at least as early as 1833 Trinity House commissioned the compilation of charts depicting the light houses and light vessels of Great Britain and nearby coasts on the Continent. Offered here is what may be the largest and most spectacular of the series, beautifully engraved and handsomely presented in luxurious cloth portfolio. The chart depicts Great Britain and northwestern Europe in simple outline, the only inland detail being major rail lines. The emphasis is on the thousands of miles of Atlantic and North Sea coastline, where it employs a sophisticated graphical coding system to indicate the color, range, frequency and arc of each of hundreds of light houses and light vessels. Each light has added notations indicating its height and, where applicable, the timing of its pulses.

For one such as myself, unaccustomed to the sea, the variety of forms is striking: Solid-shaded rings indicate fixed lights; while alternating light-and-dark shading indicates rotating lights with regular pulses. Even where two or more lights overlap, the coding system enables each to be represented with great clarity. Taken together, the color scheme and the profusion of geometric figures combine to produce a most striking and decorative effect.

Publication history
Charts with similar–though not identical-titles were previously issued by the firm of Richard Holmes Laurie by order of Trinity House in 1833, 1834, 1840, 1843, 1847, 1855, 1860. This chart of 1863 appears to be an entirely new production, on a significantly larger scale than its predecessors and with the title reading “on the N.W. Coasts of Europe” rather than “on the Coasts of Europe” as previously. OCLC also records versions of 1868, 1880 and 1885; the entries make no mention of size, but the titles once again read “on the Coasts of Europe”, suggesting that these may be revisions of the charts of 1860 and earlier.

The chart was compiled and engraved by Alexander George Findlay (1812-1875). Findlay was born in London to the Findlays of Arbroath, Forfarshire, a family long associated with nautical trades. Findlay’s father, Alexander Findlay was one of the original fellows of the Royal Geographical Society. The son devoted himself to the compilation of geographical and hydrographical works, publishing various nautical works as well as historical atlases. In 1844 he, like his father, was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Most of Findlay’s early nautical work was completed while in the employ of the London geographical and print publishing firm of Richard Holmes Laurie. Following Laurie’s death in 1858 Findlay took over the business, though he continued to operate under the R. H. Laurie imprint and published many updated versions of established charts well into the late 19th century. Findlay seems to have had an abiding interest in light houses, for in 1861 he published a Description and List of the Lighthouses of the World.

The chart is exceedingly rare: I have been able to locate but four holdings in institutional collections, and I am aware of only one other having changed hands on the antiquarian market, sold by me a few years ago.

A rare, remarkable and eminently-displayable chart from a bygone era of maritime history.

OCLC 557596448 et al, listing holdings at the British Library, National Library of Scotland, Oxford and Texas A&M (as of July 2022). I find another example at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Oddly, a loose search for the key words in the title fails to turn up any examples in ESTC.