Mapmaker's time-honored approach not lost in computerized world
By David A. Maurer | The Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Va. | Published: March 11, 2013
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The picturesque prose of Civil War writer Bruce Catton enabled the boy almost to smell the sharp odor of exploding gunpowder and hear the unearthly roar of battle.
Then, turning a page, Rick Britton saw instead of words a detailed map of the killing fields of Gettysburg. As his eyes took in the masterwork of Rafael D. Palacios, his finger could trace along Hagerstown Road and up the slope of Cemetery Ridge.
Little Round Top, Devil's Den, the peach orchard and wheat field all were there — but now, because of the map, they became more than names. Void of the soaking blood and broken bodies that transformed farm soil into hallowed ground, the map still made the terrible battle come alive in the youngster's mind.
"It was a real 'aha' moment for me," Britton said recently as he remembered back to the early 1960s, when he read the book. "I've always loved history, particularly military history.
"As I read about the Battle of Gettysburg in Catton's book, I realized [that] with the help of the maps, I could see it. That was it, and I've been hooked on maps ever since."
Britton's early fascination with maps led him to become an internationally respected cartographer. His hand-drawn maps appear in books produced by some of the world's largest publishing houses, such as Simon & Schuster, Random House and Oxford University Press.
The Albemarle County resident also is the official cartographer for the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, as well as the Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. John C. McManus, professor of U.S. military sciences at Missouri University of Science and Technology, has maps drawn by Britton in nearly all of the 10 books he has written related to military history.
"There are a lot of things I like about Rick's maps, but one thing that really stands out is his definition," McManus said during a telephone interview. "He has the ability to communicate the essence of what I want, without busying the map up too much.
"His maps are very clear — not too simple, and yet readily understandable. And I like the idea of having a true craftsman I can work with one-on-one. I think that's the way maps should be done, at least for my books.
"There is a lot of computer-generated stuff out there that may or may not be good or accurate. I like that personal touch, and I think it has really paid off. I've gotten so many compliments through the years about Rick's maps that I don't think I could even count them all."
Almost from the moment Britton realized the worth of maps in understanding military battles, strategies and movements, he started copying them. By the time he was in high school, he had covered his bedroom walls with maps he had traced from old Civil War books.
"My mom thought I was absolutely crazy and didn't understand my love for maps at all," Britton said with a laugh. "I got sick and she called the doctor, who made a house call.
"When the doctor came into my room, he started looking around at all the maps. My mom said something like, 'This is what my crazy son does.'
"But the doctor says, 'These are nice.' That was my first understanding that I wasn't the only person who loved maps. I'll never forget that doctor, because he made me realize that maybe I could do something with maps."
The first map Britton drew for monetary reward was of the Battle of Kings Mountain, fought during the American Revolutionary War. The battle occurred Oct. 7, 1780, near present-day Blacksburg, S.C.
Britton sold the map to Kings Mountain National Military Park in 1976, and the park has been selling copies of it to visitors ever since. He then drew a map of the Civil War battlefields of Manassas, which the federal government also purchased and continues to sell.
In 1980, Britton helped found Iron Crown Enterprises, based in Charlottesville. He became vice president and art director for the publishing company, and illustrated all the black-and-white maps for its publications.
Around 1990, Britton left the company to start his own business, called Studio 500. The company specialized in creating things like logos, brochures and book cover designs.
"I created book covers for a company in Crozet that no longer exists called Betterway Publications," Britton said. "I also did maps for them, as well as proofreading.
"They had a woman, Susan Provost Beller, who was writing a Civil War book for children. I proofed her book for accuracy, and shortly thereafter she sold a book to Simon and Schuster of New York City.
"One day out of the blue I got a letter from an editor at Simon and Schuster saying that Beller wanted me to proofread the book she had sold to them. I agreed, and they paid me to do it."
The book, "To Hold This Ground: A Desperate Battle at Gettysburg," became the metaphorical door that opened to give Britton access to major publishing firms. When he suggested the book would benefit from maps he could create, he was given the green light.
Britton illustrated three full-page maps for the book, and the graphic designer he was working with couldn't have been more pleased. When she moved to other publishing firms in New York City, she spread the word about his cartographic skills.
"Because of her, I'm now working with a number of publishing companies in New York City," said Britton, author of "Jefferson: A Monticello Sampler," which contains a collection of essays on aspects of the third president's life.
"It's still exciting for me to think people there are calling this guy who is working out of a little studio behind his house in Albemarle County. The niche I have is that I'm drawing maps by hand with special pens called rapidograph.
"With these pens you can produce lines with different thicknesses. The idea is to make a map pleasing to look at and easy to read. One of the ways to do this is by varying the thicknesses of the lines, and these pens enable you to do that."
Britton said alternating thicknesses of lines was a common technique used by mapmakers in the 18th and 19th centuries. He added that nowadays, virtually all the maps being made for publication in books and magazines are done on computers.
This results in cookie-cutter similarities in terrain features such as hills, woods and mountains. It also causes some maps to look out of place or not fit the page properly.
Britton's maps are tailored to specific page dimensions. They also reflect the style of the period they're from.
The process normally begins with the authors sending Britton a number of base maps to start from. Many times these base maps were made around the time the event actually took place.
"Normally, what I'm doing, especially with base maps from the 18th and 19th centuries, is compiling information from them onto my map," Britton said. "What frequently happens is that something like a road system will be accurate on a map, but not the waterways.
"So I'll bring together accurate aspects from different maps onto my map. What we get is a map that looks like a period map, but is more accurate."
Britton created eight full-page maps in Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy's soon-to-be-published "The Men Who Lost America." The book, scheduled for release in June, presents the American Revolutionary War from the British perspective.
"Maps are essential for history, although they tend not to be used nearly enough," said O'Shaughnessy, the Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. "They help people visualize.
"Rick's great strength, and the reason I wanted him, is that he draws his maps by hand, so they are like illustrations and are very attractive. A problem with computer-drawn maps is there is often too much detail.
"They don't really help the reader imagine and understand. History is all about interpreting, so when you're writing or using illustrative material, the more you can help people visualize and understand, the better."
Claiborne Hancock, owner and publisher of Pegasus Books in New York City, has been enlisting Britton to draw maps for some of his books for the past few years.
"We love Rick's work," Hancock said via email. "He has always done superlative maps for Pegasus Books.
"Striking designs combined with a great artistic vision."
Britton said there's no shortage of people creating maps on computers, but he has never met anyone still drawing them by hand. Like Palacios, who drew the magnificent map that made the Battle of Gettysburg come alive in his mind's eye, he will continue doing it the old-fashioned way.
"After all these years, I still very much enjoy doing it," Britton said of his map making. "When I'm drawing a map, I get this sense that I'm relaying geographical information to the reader.
"When I'm drawing the hills and rivers, I feel like I can picture them. It still brings me tremendous enjoyment."