Carte Réduite des Mers du Nord is a map that concentrates on the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean areas from Greenland to Scandinavia, including Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Great Britain. This handsome copperplate engraving, by Jacques Nicolas Bellin, royal hydrographer of France, was published in Antoine Prevost’s Historie Genrale des Voyages. Published in Paris, between the years 1747 and 1780, this atlas served to identify coastlines, important cities and ports, and was also used as a sea chart. In beautiful and striking black and white detail, the map is very typical of the French cartography of the mid-18th Century.
This map features a gorgeous cartouche with the title engraved in a clear and precise manner. Very different from the elaborate cartouches of the 16th and 17th century, this cartouche borders on simple and almost delicate, with slight flourishes, and the interspersing of small flowers. Along the map’s right border is the phrase “Echelle de Lieues Marines de France et d’Angleterre de 20 au Dégré”, roughly translated to mean “Scale of Marine Leagues from France and England at 20 degrees”- a useful declaration of the map’s scale, emphasizing its use by sailors, navy men, and explorers. The coastlines of Carte Réduite des Mers du Nord are very accurate for the time. Bellin was sure to identify which coastlines were certain and which areas were drawn with speculation, such as Greenland’s eastern coastline, which reads “Tote cette Coste n’est traceé que sur des Conjectures [Trans: All of the Coast is drawn on Conjecture].”
Among the most striking of the map’s details are the crisscrossing straight lines, radiating from the Mer Glaciale. These lines represent the 32 directions of the mariner’s compass from a given point, similar to a compass rose displayed on later maps and charts. Demonstrating all 32 principle points, as Bellin has done on this map, is referred to as “boxing the compass”.
Bellin, 1703-1772, was born in France, and lived in Paris for the great majority of his life. At 18, he was appointed Hydrographer (chief cartographer) to the French Navy. In 1741, he became the first Ingénieur de la Marine of the Depot des cartes et planes de la Marine, and was named the Official Hydrographer of the French Navy. A hydrographer focuses on the measurement of depth of inland waters and its variation over time and space, as well as the description of the morphological characteristics of the marginal land. Highlighting navigable waters and detailing both natural and man-made shore features, Bellin was praised for his workmanship and accuracy. During his time at the Depot, his large folio format sea charts and sea atlases of the world were declared some of the best of the 18th century, and continued to be published into the next century. Copied by many other mapmakers, Bellin’s maps gained for France a leading role in European cartography and geography.
Jacques-Nicolas was a member of the Académie de Marine, the Royal Society of London, and also an active member of the French intellectual group, the Encyclopédistes. This group of 18th century minds, including Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Diderot, compiled the 35-volume Encyclopédie, an important exposition of Enlightenment ideas. To this work, Bellin contributed an astounding 994 articles. Bellin, along with the other contributors, was also a member of the group Philosphes, intent on the advancement of science, secular thought, rationality, and open-mindedness.
His maps reflect his involvement with such rational thinkers; they are accurate and clearly labeled. He wastes no space with pomp and flourishes- and there is a definite beauty to the map’s clarity. One of the best at displaying such an expansive amount of information, Bellin created a legacy for the French- one that is still honored today among map collectors and cartographic-enthusiasts.
We are lucky to have many of his maps and sea-charts at The Old Print Gallery. To view or purchase this map online, click here. To view other maps by Bellin, click here or come visit the gallery, located in the heart of Georgetown.