This month we’d like to share with you an item which those attending RSGS’s recent Geography Day in Perth saw in our collections display: a beautifully designed and engraved map in a large world atlas, depicting in a novel way the geographical distribution of the world’s plant and vegetation zones and their relationship to altitude, further adorned by exquisitely engraved diagrams exemplifying this in relation to the Alps, the Himalayas and the Andes. The atlas, Alexander Keith Johnston’s The Physical Atlas of Natural Phenomena, in its newly enlarged edition of 1856, was published by the well-known Edinburgh firm of William Blackwood & Sons and is a masterpiece.
Its creator, Alexander Keith Johnston FRSE FRGS FGS (1804-71), described in the publisher’s Prospectus to the atlas as ‘Geographer at Edinburgh in Ordinary to her Majesty [Queen Victoria], &c,’ i.e. ‘Geographer Royal’, gains further plaudits in this Prospectus, where the atlas is described in glowing terms by The Edinburgh Review: ’It delineates to the eye as well as the mind, and far better than by any verbal description, those complex relations of Physical Phenomena on the globe which are the true foundations of Physical Geography’.
Born in Penicuik, Midlothian, Alexander Keith Johnston, with his elder brother William (later a Lord Provost of Edinburgh, after whom Johnston Terrace to the immediate south of the Castle is named), attended the High School and University of Edinburgh before training as an engraver under James and Robert Kirkwood, well-known engravers and printers who came from Perth. Later, in 1826, the Johnston brothers founded what became the internationally-known and highly-respected Edinburgh publishing house of W & A K Johnston, which produced a stream of innovative atlases, maps, globes and gazetteers in the mid- to late-19th century and into the 20th century.
A K Johnston, known as Keith, developed a clean, crisp, no nonsense cartographic style. After visiting Germany to study the burgeoning cartographic and geographic developments there, he made important connections with some of the great Geographers he met, including Heinrich Berghaus (1797-1884) and the great Prussian polymath, Geographer, naturalist, explorer and traveller, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), described by the then reigning monarch of Prussia, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, as ‘the greatest man since the Deluge’. Keith Johnston’s interchange of ideas with his European counterparts continued, allowing his cartographic development to flourish. RSGS holds some of his working copies of important mid-19th century thematic maps which he acquired via these connections, including an ethnographic map of Russia west of the Urals, gifted to him personally by Tsar Nicolas I of Russia.
Keith Johnston died in 1871, thirteen years before the founding of RSGS. His only son, Alexander Keith Johnston II (1844-1879), intending to follow in his father’s footsteps in the family firm, perished in East Africa from dysentery when leading the important Royal Geographical Society East Africa Expedition (1878-80) to open up suitable routes from the coast at Dar es Salaam to the interior lakes country. RSGS has in its collections the diary of Keith Johnston II, written during this expedition, which contains entries up to 2 weeks before his untimely death aged thirty-five. This diary was transcribed and published in 2004 as ‘Journey into Africa: the Life and Death of Keith Johnston, Scottish Cartographer and Explorer’, by a current RSGS Edinburgh Member, James McCarthy. RSGS also has a fine bust of Joseph Thomson (1858-94) who, aged twenty-one, took over the RGS Expedition after Keith Johnston II’s untimely death and brought it to a successful conclusion – Thomson’s Gazelle is named after him.
Serendipitously, 2016 marks the 160th anniversary of the publication of this superb 1856 edition of Keith Johnston’s Physical Atlas of Natural Phenomena and the 145th anniversary of his death.