IT WAS a publishing empire that spanned six generations of the one family, starting with a 13-year-old apprentice in an engraving firm.
Now the dramatic rise and fall of the Bartholomew mapmaking empire, that at one point employed up to 300 people at its Edinburgh factory and was official cartographer to Buckingham Palace, is to be told for the first time in a major exhibition.
Highlights from the vast archives of the firm, which started life in 1826, are to go on display at the National Library of Scotland, including some of the pioneering firm’s earliest maps and atlases, staff photographs, recordings from former workers.
It promises an insight into almost 200 years of map-making from copper-plate engraving to modern-day satellite imaging as well as the company’s pioneering methods which saw it become one of Scotland’s most influential firms, yet one which is now little-known.
The exhibition will include a recreation of part of the company’s long-running main factory on Duncan Street, in the city’s Newington area. as well as highlights from the family’s own private collections, including some of the earliest maps of the United States and Africa, which have never been on public display before.
The forthcoming exhibition, which opens on Friday, has been compiled from a vast archive about the firm, which was donated to the national library by the Bartholomew famiily when its final owners, publishers HarperCollins, closed down the last factory and wound up the historic Bartholomew company in Edinburgh in 1995.
The firm had been independent from its formation in 1826 by John Bartholomew, who had followed in the footsteps of his father George, an accomplished cartogropher, who started an apprenticeship with the firm Daniel Lizars at the age of just 13, working on an 1825 map of the city.
In the early days, the pair ran the company from the family home on London Road, but later moved into shared offices on North Bridge, by which time John’s son (also John) had arrived to work with the company after serving an apprenticeship in London under celebrated geographer Dr August Petermann.
Under John jnr, the company bought up steam presses and expanded from engraving into lithography, printing and then map and atlas printing, becoming the first UK to used laywered colouring on maps, like Black’s “Tourist Map of Scotland” and Baddeley’s “Guide to the Lake District.”
As John Bartholomew & Son moved first to its own premises, and then gradually bigger sites, so it went on to develop pioneering products, like the Survey Atlas of Scotland and Times Atlas of the World, before in 1910 - shortly before the firm moved to its final home on Duncan Street - it was appointed official geographer and cartogropher to the King.
The Bartholomew Archive held by the library includes copies of all printing work the firm carried out dating back to 1877. original drawings and tracings, 3000 copper plates and 6000 glass printing plates.
Karla Baker, curator of the archive, who has put together the exhibition, said: “Many of the company’s innovations were well ahead of the time and they were very influential in how maps were made for a long time.
“The Times Atlas of the World and the Survey Atlas of Scotland were their best-known publications as well as their half-inch-to-the-mile maps of Britain and cycle touring maps.”
However by the 1970s the firm’s production techniques had fallen behind the times and lacking the investment needed to embrace new technology it was sold to one of its biggest clients, Reader’s Digest in 1980 and later became part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corps publishing empire, which included HarperCollins.
Despite the vocal protests of the 80 remaining staff working at Duncan Street, which had once housed up to 300 workers, the site was sold off to a housing developer.
Ms Baker added: “Like a lot of publishing companies, they just failed to keep up with technology and they were already in decline when they were taken over by Reader’s Digest in 1980.
“A lot of the workers were very unhappy when the Duncan Street factory closed down in 1995 and we’ve made recordings with a lot of the former staff on their memories of working there over the years.
“The exhibition has a recreation of the factory floor, which takes people through the various stages of the map production process, when each member of staff had a highly-specialised role.
“We were very lucky when the family decide to donate their archive to the library as it is one of the biggest cartographic collections in the world and some items that they collected themselves, like the early maps of North America and Africa, are extremely rare.”
Ali Bowden, director of the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust, said: “‘It’s great to see our city’s glorious publishing past celebrated in this exhibition, which brings back to life the vibrancy of Bartholomew’s Edinburgh premises and highlights their world renowned maps.”
• Putting Scotland on the map: The world of John Bartholomew & Son is at the National Library of Scotland from 7 December to 7 May.