Rick Britton: Portrait of the (Map) Artist
TOPICS: Barbados, Documentary Editing, Ferry Farm, Interview, Mount Vernon, Revolutionary War, U.S. Civil War
by Jane Haxby, Copy Editor, and Kathryn Lebert, Communications Specialist
September 6, 2017
In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s take on Hamlet, Rosencrantz tells Guildenstern that he doesn’t believe in England. Guildenstern shoots back, “Just a conspiracy of cartographers, you mean?”1
Here at The Washington Papers, we may not have the makings of a conspiracy, but—amazingly—we do have a cartographer. Historian, photographer, and tour guide, Rick Britton conspires with our editors to craft the maps that appear in our volumes.2 Perhaps more accurately described as, in his words, a “map illustrator,” Britton draws maps by hand using historical references and a list of landmarks compiled by the editors. He goes beyond simply including all the necessary elements, however: His maps are not only accurate and scholarly, but original works of art.
How does one become a historical map illustrator? For Britton, it began with an interest in history. As he tells it, when he was a teenager, he “just fell in love with the maps in the old history books, the maps the way they looked back then, the maps the way they were drawn during the Civil War and during the American Revolution.” He taught himself to enlarge maps using the same “grid method” artists have been using for centuries. This involves drawing a grid over an image and then proportionally reproducing that image by using a larger grid of equal ratio.3 He covered his bedroom walls with freehand reproductions of his favorite maps. And in the course of copying the maps he loved, he also learned how to draw the terrain symbols and other graphic design elements used by the cartographers of those periods.
Britton still revels in the details of historically accurate maps. For him, “it’s all about making it fit the period.” As with all true craftsmen, the joy he takes in the details of his art shines through. In the map of Virginia that will appear in the upcoming edition of George Washington’s Barbados diary, Britton drew icons for the buildings that were important in Washington’s youth, including his childhood home (now called Ferry Farm) and his later residence, Mount Vernon. To render these tiny images, he found depictions online of the buildings as they looked at the time, drew them, and then shrunk them (now using modern technology rather than his early training in the grid method). For the same upcoming volume, Britton mapped the route to Barbados that Washington recorded in his ship’s log, as recreated mathematically by editor Alicia K. Anderson. For that map, he departed from the border that he has made standard for The Washington Papers and drew a new one based on eighteenth-century nautical maps. He reflects that the period-specific border was “pretty complicated to draw, but it makes the whole thing fit.”
Skillfully using pencil and compass, Britton illuminates events for readers of presidential papers, including The Washington Papers, The Papers of James Madison, and The Papers of Thomas Jefferson; for students of the American Civil War and World Wars I and II; and even for players of a Tolkien-based game for which he hand-lettered maps of Middle Earth. Partly because his maps often depict places and scenarios that no longer exist—or that exist only in the imagination—Britton routinely cannot visit the sites he illustrates. But even when he is unable to see an area, his work offers a new perspective on it, not only for readers but for himself as well. In the course of his research into the Civil War battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, two Confederate forts whose captures opened major waterways to the Union army, Britton’s geographical fluency helped him to grasp the brilliance of General Ulysses S. Grant’s gunboat strategy. Grant knew that the Tennessee River, on which Fort Henry stood, and the Cumberland River, likewise guarded by Fort Donelson, flow north into the Ohio. “Of course, looking at the map I could see it!” Britton marvels. “Even though [the steam-paddle gunboats were] going south, they were going upriver to bombard the boats and the forts on the land. If they got in too much trouble—for example, if they were getting too much enemy fire—all they had to do was cut the engines and float away.”4
Britton is particularly interested in the minutiae of historical engagements and the unique ability of maps to convey those details. Two of Britton’s favorites among his own works are his illustrations of Northeast New Jersey and of British operations against Charleston, S.C., both in 1780 (published in Revolutionary War Series volumes 24 and 25, and reproduced here). He enjoys illustrating in such detail because “it makes it so much easier for the reader to understand exactly what happened.” On a deeper level, the historian within him values maps like these because such “small-unit actions” have been “largely overlooked, and it’s so important for us to honor those who fought, and suffered, and died on our behalf.”
Rick Britton advances the study of and joy in history in everything he does. He confesses that he loves “things the way they used to be.” The twin goals of documentary editing are scholarship and accessibility, helping a wider audience understand the past. Britton’s maps offer both, and the volumes of The Washington Papers that have the good fortune to include them are all the more beautiful for it.
- Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (New York, 1967), Act 3, p. 106.
- Find Rick Britton’s website at http://www.rickbritton.com.
- Find step-by-step instructions in the “grid” technique at https://sibleyfineart.com/tutorial–gridding-art.htm.
- For a summary of the battle of Fort Henry, see https://www.nps.gov/abpp/battles/tn001.htm. For an 1875 map showing the two forts and their respective rivers, see https://www.civilwar.org/learn/maps/positions-fort-henry-fort-donelson.