The art of contouring: towards a creative historical geography of contour lines in Britain and Ireland, 1778 - 1860.

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Natural and Built Environment


This project seeks to creatively reconstruct a cultural history of contour lines in Britain and Ireland, 1778 - c. 1860. Combining a novel methodology of artistic re-enactment with a geographical approach to historical research, the project will investigate the inception and development of 'contouring'. The practical, aesthetic and wider cultural dimensions of measuring and representing relief will be imaginatively reconstructed through the production of models, maps and other artistic modes of replication. As well as working towards a historical geography of contouring, the project will contribute to the emerging field of GeoHumanities and open up new avenues for art-geography collaboration.

The contour line has been used to represent relief on British maps since the early nineteenth century. Now taken for granted, the history of the line's origins and eventual adoption on British maps was tortuous and contentious (Andrews 1975; Seymour 1980). This project will provide a new, detailed cultural history of the contour line in the period 1778-1860 through reconstructions of several key moments crucial to the invention and adoption of contouring. The research will aim to recover the place-specific cultural and technical assumptions that informed the use of, and resistance to, contours on maps and will seek to imaginatively recreate the material challenges and aesthetic judgements that guided decisions about how to represent relief.

In historiographical terms, this project will explore the evolution of contouring in ways informed by work on the historical geographies of knowledge (Finnegan 2008; Livingstone 2003; Naylor 2005) and critical cartography (e.g. Crampton 2010; Dodge 2017). Methodologically, the project will work with an emerging literature on mapping, mark-making and site-specific artistic practice (e.g. Ingold 2007; Hawkins 2014; Parker 2015) to reassemble and re-interpret the cultural and material practices associated with contouring. Drawing on recent innovations in cultural and historical geography, attention will be given to ways of re-enacting past creative practices (Lilley 2000; Lorimer 2003; 2009; Patchett 2017; Schneider 2011), including the skills associated with measuring and graphically representing contours. The physical and digital reproduction of maps, models and other related products will be used to better understand the contested and piecemeal emergence of contours as a primary mode for representing relief in two dimensions.

Informed by these conceptual and methodological concerns, the project will be guided by three main research questions:

1. In what ways did place-specific cultural and scientific assumptions and practices influence the development, design and adoption of contours?
2. How did established cartographic traditions challenge or check the creation, use and promotion of contour lines on maps?
3. What aesthetic conventions influenced the relative 'qualities' or 'quantities' a contour line was taken to convey?


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