Mapping the River Don.

One of the many projects that have come to me after Hand Drawn Maps hit the shops was a commission by The River Don Millowners’ Association. They needed a map of the River Don for a small publication about the history of the association and its philanthropic works. History and nature. Right up my street. Of course I said yes.

The River Don Millowners’ Association is a charitable organisation that was originally set up in the 19th century to protect the interests of local millowners. Although it closed in the mid ‘60s, its funds still existed. They were invested and the proceeds are now used for the benefit of the community, often for projects that celebrate industrial heritage.

So it was at the end of last year that I found myself poring over multiple OS maps of the River Don, stained by red brick industrial Sheffield, held at bay by the wilderness of the Peaks. Judging by the maps, it looked to be a beautiful place. Steep contours crossed the paper, occasionally interrupted by symbols for small woods and slashed by icy blue streams. Tiny villages clung to the windswept hillsides, their names hinting at the stories of the people who came before.

river don maps

I started by working out how my own map would fit on the page dimensions I’d been given, using the OS and Google satellite maps as a guide. Scale was an important issue. I used layout paper to roughly sketch the journey of the river, checking the features the client wanted were all included. There was a gutter going down the middle so I had to be careful that vital parts of the map didn’t disappear down the centrefold. A little creative mapping was called for because of this – some of the river tributaries became longer than they are in reality and allowed for the lettering to be read easily.

Eventually after a fair number of mis-tries, I had a workable map model and the drawing was transferred to my usual heavyweight watercolour paper.

Next came some research into the main features mentioned in the book; the mills and wheels, the bridges and smoking chimneys. I chose to show these in tiny oval vignettes – this format would pick them out against the background colour and allow for a variety of scales and viewpoints to look consistent. I loved reading about the history of the mills and looking at old photographs of both rural and industrial heritage.

More secondary features like the houses of Sheffield and the many trees were kept simple. I wanted there to be a hint of mid Victorian folk art about them so shapes are clear and perspective is flat.

One of the joys of hand drawn maps is being creative about the map ‘furniture’- the compass, the neatlines and the cartouche. I researched 19th century graphic design for some inspiration. Old metal signs found on industrial bridges gave me an idea for the shape of and lettering on the cartouche. Old printed pamphlets gave me ideas about the neatline corner decoration. These details were pared down from the usual Victorian decorative extravagance to match the simple feel of the rest of the map.

Once drawn out, the map was finally painted mainly using gouache. I like the blockiness that gouache gives me and hopefully it adds something to the flat, unnuanced naïve feel. Colours were chosen to reflect the greens, greys and blues of the Peaks combined with the reds, ochres and dusty tans of the settlements. The creamy paint was given free rein over the wide moors and details of windows, leaves and lettering were painted with a fine brush and a magnifying glass.

This was a very satisfying project to be involved in and gave me full-on permission to indulge my inner geek. I enjoyed learning something new about industrial history in Yorkshire and also how an association, built on the drive for commercial success and often battling with local communities over resources, slowly developed into a philanthropic organisation with the community at its heart. ‘Power and Philanthropy,  the story of the River Don Millowners’ Association’ by Anthony Swift is a fascinating read and is available to buy from Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield.

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