Friday, April 11, 2014

The Sun Never Sets On The British Empire

I always enjoy it when I see an old map or print used in a television program or movie and so it was fun to see a case of this in one of my favorite shows, PBS’s Mr. Selfridge. This program is about American businessman Harry Gordon Selfridge and the department store he founded in London in 1909. The second season of the show has recently started and one of the themes of this season is the beginning of World War I in 1914.

As a promotion, and to show support for Great Britain, Selfridge decided to hold “Empire Week”, where displays throughout the store would evoke all corners of the British Empire. This included the window displays and in the last scene of episode two we see Selfridge looking at a window which has the legend “The Sun Never Sets On The British Empire.” In the window is a large map of the world which, even at the quick glance we have of it, apparently shows the British Empire.

The map shown is, in fact, probably the most famous map to show the British Empire, Walter Crane’s “Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire…” I think it is pretty cool, the show using an appropriate map as part of the Empire Week set. However, I do have to note that there are a couple of ‘not quite right’ aspects to this. First off, the map was issued, as the title above goes on to state, “in 1886,” not in 1914 when the show takes place. Secondly, the real map is about 2 x 2 1/2 feet in size, whereas the map in the show is considerably larger than that. Still, I love the use of such an interesting map in this great television series.

Crane’s map was issued as a supplement to a British newspaper, The Graphic, on July 24th, 1886. It is a wonderful example of the pictorial map genre, drawn by one of the most influential book illustrators of the late nineteenth century, Walter Crance, who is known especially for his children’s book illustrations. The map was based on “statistical information” provided by J.C.R. Colomb (to whom the map is sometimes attributed) and it shows the world with the different parts of the British Empire colored in red.

The map also shows Britannia literally sitting on top of the world, surrounded by her subjects. The map uses the Mercator projection, which was common for world maps of the period, and it is interesting that this projection does tend to exaggerate the size of places in the higher latitudes, such as the British Isles and Canada. It is also interesting to note that if this map had been issued in 1914, instead of 1886, more of the world, especially in Africa, would have been colored red.

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