100 years of getting people outside – celebrating Ellis Martin

OS map cover with artwork by Ellis MartinIf you’re a fan of old maps, you might have seen some of Ellis Martin’s work. The map cover artwork in the 1920s and ‘30s was often created by Ellis Martin, who joined OS in 1919. Those maps with Martin’s distinctive drawings helped establish OS as a leading outdoors brand, something worth celebrating 100 years on.

With the anniversary already in mind, it was quite a coincidence to receive an email saying: “When clearing out a relative’s house, I came across a painting done by the artist who illustrated your map covers, Ellis Martin.”

The email went on: “On the back of the painting were kept all the illustrated letters he sent to his wife and child from the front-line during WW1. I think he may have worked on mapping for artillery. Attached are a couple of the letters there are about 20+ in all.”

Two days later and I found myself standing beneath the clock at Waterloo station waiting for the man who’d sent the email. He appeared carrying a bulging black bin liner. We went and sat in one of the station’s cafes and he proceeded to show me its contents.

Ellis Martin painting

The Ellis Martin painting

The real find was the letters, which despite being hidden in an attic for years, were in immaculate condition.

One of Ellis Martin’s letters which was discovered behind a painting

As well as containing his private thoughts to his wife and daughter, and mention of going to work for Ordnance Survey, the letters also feature illustrations and humorous caricatures of war time colleagues. They provide a glimpse into the talent that would soon be deployed to great effect by OS, as he became our first map cover artist.

First tourist maps from OS

An example of an Ellis Martin map cover

Ellis Martin map cover

Charles Close, the Director General of OS at the time, wanted to modernise the organisation and generate income. In June 1919, Charles Close launched OS’s first 1-inch Tourist Map to aid the public – whether that was on foot, in the car or on a bike – in enjoying and exploring the British landscape. On its cover, Ellis Martin’s artwork depicted a romantic British idyll of rolling landscapes and people enjoying the outdoors. During the inter-war period and beyond OS began selling record numbers of maps, as they became the passport for people to discover Britain.

Martin’s artwork played a huge role in making that happen with his evocative map covers. They carry more than a little something of Coleridge and Wordsworth’s poetry, relating to walking through countryside and nature that is so deeply entrenched in British psyche.

It is testament to the vision of Charles Close and the skills of Martin and the other OS artists that for many people if you mention OS, they think of paper maps. That is Martin’s legacy.

A Christmas card created for Ordnance Survey by Ellis Martin

Christmas card by Ellis Martin

Aside from map covers, during his 20 years with OS Ellis also created a number of Christmas cards, and even the drawings for stained glass windows which commemorated those OS employees who lost their lives in the war.

OS today

It remains true that getting people outside is still vitally important for us, and this is reflected in the OS Maps app, which for a small fee gives access to all 607 of OS’s leisure mapping titles, which can also be printed off, as well as viewed on digital devices. But since Martin’s days the arrival and rapid progression of technology in the 20th century has seen OS transform itself into the digital data powerhouse it is today.

OS is still relied on by Government and business, as we always have been, but with the emergence of other new technologies, Internet of Things, Smart Cities, driverless vehicles and more, and our ability to deliver data quicker to customers and in a variety of formats, it is arguable that we are now entering a ‘golden age’ for geography and geographic data. I wonder how Ellis Martin would capture that in a painting?

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