Figurative map of Belgium, 1850
How might a geographical map offer the public and especially schoolchildren a full and immediate overview of the country, shown with all of its plains, dunes, hills and valleys?
This could well have been the question that occurred to General Charles Niellon (1795-1871) around the mid-19th-century. Niellon was a hero of the Belgian Revolution who was also a writer, composer and industrialist. He thus decided to create a large map of Belgium that would provide “an accurate bird’s eye view of the country”. He contacted the Brussels cartographer Philippe Vandermaelen (1795-1869), in whose studio he made copies of maps of Belgium and other geographical data. He then invented, together with his friend the musician Prosper Michelot (ca. 1804-?), “A completely new process” for illustrating relief, as they described it in their brochure, a process they guarded with secrecy.
The maps by Niellon and Michelot are made up of different sheets of compressed paper. The place names were printed in black ink on the lithographic press before the relief was added. The waterways are recessed, while the various elevations, roads, cities and villages are embossed. The entire map is hand-coloured with pen and brush, with watercolour paint, while the raised, embossed areas are given different coloured symbols, thus marking factories, castles, monasteries, water and windmills and farms, as well as forests, meadows, swampland and heath.
Drawn at a scale of 1:84 000, it took 72 sheets for Niellon and Michelot’s Géographie figurative to cover the entire territory of Belgium. It was also constructed so that the edges of the sheets could be cut off to assemble a monumental composite map of the entire country. But between February and July 1850, only 10 sheets were published.
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