‘Art meets Maps’ at La Jolla Map Museum’s new exhibit

The pictures that comprise the current exhibition at the Map & Atlas Museum of La Jolla could be found in the London Underground of the early 20th century, the pocket of a tourist in the Coachella Valley in the 1950s, or the walls of a French airport 50 years ago.

The “Art Meets Maps” exhibit features pictographic maps — pieces that mix cartography, art and illustration. “As opposed to a regular map or a chart, which is meant to be a working document, a pictorial map, for example, shows London in a graphic sort of way, providing information to the person about the underground, but the great difference is the illustration added to the cartography,” said Richard Cloward, the map museum’s director.

The exhibit includes nine pieces made by British artist and illustrator McDonald Gill, whom Cloward described as a “true Renaissance man.” In 1918, Gill created the oldest map in the exhibit, a colorful chart of London that was the city’s first attempt at a way-finder for its metro system. One of the earliest versions has a header that reads, “By paying us your pennies, you go about your business in trams, electric trains and motor-driven buses. This largest of all cities, great London by the Thames.”

“In recent years there’s been a great upsurge in pictographic map-collecting because there’s an appeal in the history, the map and the art. And it’s much prettier to put that on the wall than your AAA map,” Cloward said.

Pictographic maps not only show cities, towns and roads, but they can contain information about the distinctive flora and fauna, a region’s crops and cattle, or what metals are found in the land.

After World War I, Gill started getting assignments to teach Brits about the value of the colonies. The “Tea Map,” from 1937 pictures Ceylon, India, Sumatra and Java, four colonies from which United Kingdom got its favorite 5 o’clock herb.

Another of Gill’s pieces in the “Art Meets Maps” exhibit was done for the early United Nations (UN), and shows a sun shining over all the UN countries, which have their characteristics artfully presented. “These are educational, but they attractive enough to catch your eye,” Cloward commented.

Two years ago, La Jolla Map & Atlas Museum got great reviews from a temporary exhibit featuring the work of Jo Mora, a California illustrator whose work included an iconic 1928 “Whimsical map of San Diego.”

“People came in here and said, ‘Wow!’ We realized that many times, people come in and find the other maps almost overwhelming, but when we put in the Mora collection, people were very attracted to those pictorial maps,” he said.

Five of the Mora works became part of the Map Museum’s permanent collection and can be appreciated along with the new show.

Cloward explained that the purpose of many 20th century pictographic maps was advertisement or propaganda. The exhibit includes two pieces by Lucien Boucher from the 1950s that were public campaigns for Air France. “We put them here because they are neat. The top one is cosmography, and the bottom one is the world on its hemispheres. You almost don’t realize this is an advertisement because it looks more like a work of art,” he said.

Many pictographic maps take design elements from early cartography. For example, the Air France posters show two wind-blowing characters that can be found in a 16th century Dutch map elsewhere in the museum. Another characteristic is the use of squared vignettes along the outsides of the maps.

One not-to-miss piece in the show is a Coachella Valley map from the 1950s by Dolores d’Ambly. “You can’t put a pricetag on that because it’s the only one known to exist,” Cloward said. Other than that one, original pictographic maps are “within a reasonable price —in the thousands,” he said.

“The last 15 years or so have been really remarkable in the amount of interest that’s been shown in pictographic maps,” Cloward said. “They are being produced today at various levels of quality … it’s kind of like your grandfather’s poster, don’t take it down and throw it away, it might be valuable some day,” he concluded.

The exhibit will be on through Saturday, May 20, 2017.

IF YOU GO: La Jolla Map & Atlas Museum has free admission and is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursdays, and first and third Saturdays (except holiday weekends) at 7825 Fay Ave., Suite LL-A. Book a tour at (855) 653-6277 or