Geographical Fun: A Victorian Teenage Girl’s Impressive Cartographic Caricatures of European Countries and Their National Stereotypes
Within a humorous gem, a serious reminder of how malleable even the seeming solidities of geopolitics are.
By Maria Popova
It is in times of uncertainty and complexity, particularly the kind catalyzed by political tumult, that we are most drawn to caricature — the art of parodic exaggeration and oversimplification. Political satire of the visual sort seems to hold a special allure to artistically gifted and precocious teenage girls — from fifteen-year-old Jane Austen’s parodic history of England, illustrated by her sister, to sixteen-year-old Elissa Jane Karg’s brilliant visual satire of 1960s counterculture.
In 1868, a century and a half before London-based Bulgarian designer Yanko Tsvetkov drew his subversive maps of European stereotypes, another precocious teenage girl took to the task of caricaturing the Old World’s nationalities. A fifteen-year-old Victorian young lady named Elizabeth Lilian Lancaster, who went by the alias Aleph, created Geographical Fun: Being Humourous Outlines of Various Countries — an atlas of twelve maps, drawn with impressive draughtsmanship and charming irreverence, each depicting the national character of a different European country alongside a short humorous verse.
Aleph’s maps were later included in the altogether wonderful 1983 gem Victorian Color Picture Books (public library), edited by Jonathan Cott (whose work I first came across through his magnificent conversation with Susan Sontag) and featuring commentary by Maurice Sendak.
Beautiful England, — on her Island throne, —
Grandly she rules, — with half the world her own;
From her vast empire the sun ne’er departs:
She reigns a Queen — Victoria, Queen of Hearts.
A gallant piper, struggling through the bogs,
His wind bag broken, wearing clay clogs;
Yet, strong of heart, a fitting emblem makes
For Scotland — land of heroes and of cakes.
Geography bewitch’d — Owen Glendowr,
In Bardic grandeur, looks from shore to shore,
And sings King Arthur’s long, long pedigree,
And cheese and leeks, and knights of high degree.
And what shall typify the Emerald Isle?
A Peasant, happy in her baby’s smile?
No fortune, her’s, — though rich in native grace, —
Herrings, potatoes, and a joyous face.
Stereotypes, to be sure, are immensely limiting, and yet the exaggeration of traits has always been the raw material of caricature. But what makes Aleph’s maps so exceptional is that in addition to displaying incredible spatial intelligence and imagination, they also bespeak impressive familiarity with the cultures of foreign countries to a point far beyond the knowledge of today’s average teenager, even the well educated fifteen-year-old.
A hook-nosed lady represents fair France,
Empress of cooks, of fashions, and the dance.
Her flatt’ring glass declares that vict’ry, power,
Beauty, wealth, arts, are her imperial dower.
Dame Holland, trick’d out in her gala clothes,
And Master Belgium, with a punchy nose;
Seem on the map to represent a land,
By patriot worth, and perfect art made grand.
For Shakespeare’s Prince, and the Princess of Wales,
To England dear. Her royal spirit quails;
From skating faint, she rests upon the snow;
Shrinking from unclean beasts that grin below.
Thou model chieftain — born in modern days —
Well may thy gallant acts claim classic praise.
Uncompromising friend of liberty!
Thy Photograph ennobles Italy!
Embedded in the atlas is also a reminder of how malleable and artificial the lines by which we mark geopolitics are in history’s hindsight — national borders, on which entire wars are waged, shift over time or disappear altogether. Aleph drew her maps when Prussia still existed and the German Empire had just formed within it; when, in the aftermath of Spain’s Glorious Revolution, Portugal’s former regent Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg was being briefly considered for the Spanish throne; when my own native Bulgaria was still a decade away from liberation after a 500-year Ottoman slavery and, not yet being a sovereign nation, didn’t make it into the atlas at all. (Incidentally, that very same Ferdinand’ son became Bulgaria’s second monarch a decade after the 1878 liberation, further demonstrating just how intimately entwined the histories and destinies of European nations are.)
These long divided nations soon may be,
By Prims’ grace, joined in lasting amity.
And ladies fair — if King Fernando rules,
Grow grapes in peace, and fatten their pet mules.
His Majesty of Prussia — grim and old —
Sadowa’s King — by needle guns made bold;
With Bismark of the royal conscience, keeper,
In dreams political none wiser — deeper.
Lo! studious Germany, in her delight,
At coming glories, shewd by second sight,
And on her visioned future proudly glancing,
Her joy expresses by a lady dancing.
Since most of modern-day Eastern Europe suffered Bulgaria’s fate under Ottoman slavery, we must make do with the sole Slavic representative in Aleph’s atlas:
Peter, and Catherine, and Alexander,
Mad Paul, and Nicholas, poor shadows wander
Out in the cold; while Emperor A. the Second
In Eagles, Priests, and Bears supreme is reckoned.
Victorian Color Picture Books is a delight in its totality, featuring seminal illustration by legends like Randolph Caldecott and Walter Crane, as well as a wonderful conversation with Maurice Sendak about the art of visual storytelling. Complement this portion of it with the British Library’s excellent Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art.
Published July 4, 2016