The Island: Stephen Walter's hand-drawn map of London

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This article appears in Issue 12 of Umbrella

London is a city defined by its maps. From Braun and Hogenberg’s work of 1572 to Google’s very modern Maps, what unites them is that they become – in some part at least – obsolete the moment they’re published. 

For artist Stephen Walter, this isn’t a problem. Unlike traditional cartographers, Walter creates urban maps that substitute roads and streets for quotes, legends and landmarks, all densely placed on top of each other in his trademark handdrawn style. Nothing illustrates this better than his incredible map of London, <The Island>, now published as a book.

Like a psychogeographic A-Z, the work imagines the capital as an island cut off from the country around it. From afar it looks like a ball of scribbles contained within the shape of Greater London. But on closer inspection, the city reveals its secrets, every settlement crammed with information, legend and poetry. Closing in on a borough like Islington, we’re faced with snippets of text – “Graham Bond throws himself under a train” and “Young Stalin met Lenin here”, which every fact-hungry urbanist will delight in. 

Unsurprisingly, it took Walter a full two years, from 2006-8, to complete the thing. And in that time, London seemed to draw itself further away from the rest of England. This is reflected in the work.

“Britain is a collection of islands and it undoubtedly forms part of our identity,” says Walter, himself a Londoner. “This provincialism; the centre of many industries and in particular the London-centric art world and its rise again to a world city status add to its identity as an icon, separated from the rest of the country. I wanted to perceive London as another one of these ‘islands’.”

While the original of The Island is perhaps a little too large (and expensive) to hang on your wall, the book version, complete with 120 illustrations over 144 pages, is the perfect addition to any map-lover’s collection.

If you live in the capital, you’ll find a detailed examination of your borough (all 33 are illustrated) while if you don’t, you can marvel at the sheer size of the place, and be thankful (or regretful) your life is spent elsewhere. It really is a page-turner.

The Island, London Mapped by Stephen Walter is out now, published by Prestel, £22.50








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