The word atlas is named after Prometheus’ brother, the Titan Atlas, who was always pictured carrying the terrestrial globe or the heavens on his shoulders.  The term seems to have been first used to describe a book of maps by Gerard Mercator, in Atlas sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi et fabricate figura (Duisburg, 1585).  We have a copy of the English translation, Atlas, or A geographicke description of the regions, countries, and kingdomes of the world (Amsterdam, 1636).  The earliest printed book we would recognize as an atlas was published in 1570 – Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum orbis terrarium (Antwerp).  This is noteworthy for the first printed map of Wales, and for including the description of the Teifi as the only river in Britain inhabited by beavers.  

The first English attempt at producing an atlas on a grand scale was John Speed’s The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (London, 1611).  It included the first detailed maps of the provinces of Ireland, the first set of county maps consistently trying to show the boundaries of territorial divisions, and the first set of comprehensive town plans.  Our copy (1627) is a “made-up” volume, containing sheets from the preface, plus 54 maps originally sold separately.    

We also hold Atlas universel (Paris, 1757)the most important work of father and son Gilles Robert and Didier Robert de Vaugondy.  It was initially marketed by subscription; among the subscribers was Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Madame de Pompadour.  The expenses of production were considerable; for the 108 maps, the cost of engraving came to 23 760 livres. The atlas included Didier Robert’s Essai sur l’Histoire de Géographie as an introduction.  Practical and aesthetic considerations came into play in its design; the Vaugondys aimed for a publication that was both “bel et utile”.   

William Jefferys, map-maker of The West-India atlas (London, 1775)was one of the leading cartographers of the 18th century, and involved in the publication of many of the key geographical texts.  He was appointed geographer to George III in December 1760, so was well-placed to have access to the best surveys conducted in America.  He died in 1771. West-India atlas, like its companion volume The American Atlas (London, 1776)was published posthumously.  Its heart and the most detailed part of it is the sixteen sheet large chart and index sheet of the whole of the West Indies.  The rest of the atlas is made up of charts of the Atlantic Islands and the British Channel, as well as individual maps and charts of seventeen islands in the Caribbean.  Three of the large chart maps are also found in The American Atlas, (not in RBLA stock).  

From later mapmakers, we have such works as Joseph Nightingale’s English topography (London, 1816)Thomas Dix’s A complete atlas of the English counties (London, 1822) and Daniel Augustus Beaufort’s Memoir of a map of Ireland, (London, 1792).