Vandermaelen’s Amazing Atlas and his maps of Southern Africa

11 August 2016

Vandermaelen and his atlas

Philippe Vandermaelen (1795-1869) was the son of the wealthy soap manufacturer; he abandoned the soap trade and devoted his life to cartography. Entirely self-taught in geometry, astronomy and the geosciences, he began drafting the first sheets of an Atlas universel in 1824. This atlas was published between 1825 and 1827; it was sold in forty instalments of ten maps each and became a great success. The revenue enabled him to set up his own Etablissement géographique de Bruxelles in 1830, which not only produced maps, atlases and globes in large quantities but also housed a natural science museum, botanical gardens, a library, and an impressive collection of maps.

Shortly after the closing of Vandermaelen’s Institute, the Royal Library of Belgium (KBR) in 1880 acquired a large part of its cartographic collection and production.

Vandermaelen’s atlas was remarkable: 387 maps on a uniform scale of ca. 1:1.6 million. There was one edition of this very rare atlas, published in 1825-27; the subscription list shows that only 810 copies were sold. The six volumes, of which Africa was in Volume III (60 maps), were issued in instalments during the period 1825-1827: 

Atlas universel de geographie physique, politique, statistique et mineralogique, sur l'echelle de 1/1641836 ou d'une ligne par 1900 toises, dresse par Ph. Vandermaelen, Membre de la Societe de Geographie de Paris, d'apres les meilleures cartes, observations astronomiques et voyages dans les divers Pays de la Terre (Troisieme partie. – Afrique).

The Atlas Universel was dedicated to King Willem I of the Netherlands, at that time comprising both Belgium and Holland.

This folio-size atlas is remarkable for several reasons. It is the first atlas produced by the then new printing process of lithography. It is also the first atlas to show the whole world in 380 maps using a large uniform scale—about 10km to the cm. on a modified conical projection described by Sanson-Flamsteed. Based on a prime meridian through Paris, each map has a drawn-out graticule giving it a trapezoidal form, the underlying intention being construction of a globe with a diameter of 7.755m ( Eugene Gilbert de Cauwer , his biographer, suggested that Vandernaelen was  "a worthy follower of Mercator and Ortelius".

Vandermaelen enlisted the assistance of lithographer-printer Hippolyte Ode in this ambitious project which introduced lithography into Belgium and created an upsurge in Belgian publishing. A number of maps were lithographed by Philippe Vandermaelen himself. For many of the areas depicted, these maps are the largest scale maps made at the time, and the most detailed. The lithographs are very well drawn and printed and should be appreciated in the context of lithography, which was a developing art at the time. The maps are handsome and detailed, although some of the place names are somewhat curious and the cartography sometimes imaginary. Nevertheless,the Vandermaelen maps are of great significance in the history of cartography and lithography. Visually, they are arresting and unusual. Vandermaelen's maps best are appreciated in the context of its neighbouring maps - they were all meant to be joined – and, therefore, the five maps that comprise Africa south of 24°S are a compelling set.

The set of Southern Africa Maps

Philippe-Marie-Guillaume Vandermaelen produced the most remarkable atlas in the nineteenth century. The atlas is very rare and it is quite possible neither Tooley or Norwich saw Vadermaelen’s five maps of South Africa; the maps are very scarce and even individual maps seem to be available in the market only every few decades.

From the Rumsey Collection

The set of maps of Africa south of 24°S comprises:

  • Afrique Partie, Pays des Hottentots No. 50 (52cm x48cm): with text box
  • Afrique  Pays des Hottentots No.51  (54 cm x43cm)
  • Afrique Partie, la Caffrerie. No.52 (52 cm x 47cm): with text box
  • Afrique Cap de Bonne Esperance. No. 53 (50 cm x48cm)
  • Afrique Cap de Bonne Esperance. No.54 (50 cm x 50cm): with text box

The maps are lithographs which have been outline-coloured by hand.

Jointly the set of five Southern Africa maps are approximately 1.6m x 1.0m, a scale similar to Arrowsmith’s iconic 1802 large scale map.

Vandermaelen used up to date information, including, for example, the  information on the geography and routes of William Burchell (1811 – 1815, but published in 1822 & 1824) and John Campbell (1819- 1821, published 1822). 

Detail of Vandermaelen’s the south-eastern border region
of the Cape Colony, showing Burchell’s route, and part of the text box.

Selected references

David Rumsey Collection:

Princeton University:

Wulf Bodentstein. Around Philippe Vandermaelen in Newlsetters 43 & 52 of the Brussels International Map Collectors Society.

Roger Stewart

[email protected]