My Kind of Place, My Kind of Map: How Personal Projects Can Show the Way…

If you believe the endlessly productive people on social media, this period of lockdown is an ideal time to finish a personal project. We have been forced to change plans, adapt and experiment so, in the positive spirit of the ‘productive people’, this post is about how I managed to take a project that had been stopped midway and create something new.   

You may remember a year or so ago, I was asked to create a map of the Oxford Waterways as a prop for the BBC/HBO series ‘His Dark Materials’, shown in late 2019. Well, in fact, originally there were two maps commissioned; the first, a close up map of the Thames and the second, a more pulled back view. As often happens in films, the script changed, scenes were cut and one of the maps was no longer needed although I had already started it.

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The first (and only) map of Oxford Waterways I completed for BBC/HBO’s ‘His Dark Materials’ .

I was disappointed and frustrated – I like to finish things and find it hard to leave something in mid flow so I put it to one side. No point wasting good drawing and research. There would always be a time to complete it for my own satisfaction. And there was.

Using the first, very simple map as a base, I worked it up into something more complex. Beside the Rivers Thames and Cherwell with their lacing of streams and canals, I added forests and hedgerows, marshes and pools. Roads and pathways were named and lettered. Tiny iconic Oxford buildings sprang up in the centre. I can’t go there at the moment, but one day, I will.A new cartouche appeared, more complex than the first and based on the lettering and traditional patterns found on old canal boats.

The compass rose reflects those barge colours too, set next to sections patterned with waves and an anchor pointing Northwards.

I wanted to include more common river wildlife on the map so I made a swallow and kingfisher swoop across the landscape. Moustachioed barbel and fat bream swim lazily through borders, in between the antics of frogs and newts and otters. Water marigold and mint reach upwards to touch the drooping willow trees.

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My kind of place. My kind of map.

From a map created for a client with a particular brief, this map of the Oxford waterways had become my own: idiosyncratic, colourful, crammed and decorative, teaming with nature and made purely for enjoyment.

Maps are, at heart, functional tools although there is no ultimate end-use for this one. However, despite that, I learnt so much about these waterways in the making of it and I learnt, as an artist, how important it is to take time out for personal projects. The process of creating this map became a guide, pointing me to an eventual desired destination; I’d like to continue making more maps that combine cartography and nature in the future. Even if the initial spring starts in disappointment and frustration and plans have to change, you just don’t know where the river will finally take you…

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