Peak and Chain (stickmen and millipedes)

I get stuck on hills. I spend hours poring over mountains on their paper mates; fingers track, stub and circle notable features as I try to transform their graphic qualities into words. Even as I write, my attention is snagged by Schiehallion: eye height on the wall beside me; it beckons me to journey again across the dense swirl of orange contours that ring its flanks. I am happiest when mountains and hills are set in splendid isolation, rising nobly from whatever plateau below, akin to plinth mounted statue. Like mapmakers of yore, I struggle once individuality is compromised; when one hill merges with the next through a series of ridges. How do we mark their barrier like qualities on a map? How best might land be divvied into connected walls of altitude on the one hand, and pools and parcels of river catchment on the other? It’s a conundrum with long roots back through history.Draughtsmen at work in the early years of the Ordnance Survey reached for myriad options: some chose to furnish interlinking hills with tight and twisting valleys most reminiscent of a ‘cranial cortex’. Thomas Budgen ­veered between rough-barked truncated ‘deer antlers’ for mountainous regions then softened the lines to lend a more rounded tentacle or finger-like appearance to undulating terrain. More commonly chains were announced by the use of ‘millipede legs’ for hachures, or prettier ‘eye lashes’ that were more sparsely drawn than the millipedes. Both these styles left hill summits and valley bottoms blank and relied on the curl of lash or leg to enable us to differentiate high ground from low. Dupain-Triel was a millipede man. In 1782 he created a map of the ‘main chains’ of mountains (millipedes), and principle courses of the rivers of France. Nine years later he eschewed the millipede to produce one of the earliest printed contour maps. It is the same size and outline of France as the earlier map, only this time the ‘different height of its plains’ is foregrounded and the rivers are not nearly as eye catching. Things get strange on a third map printed in 1802: same size again, same outline; only this one is overprinted so that millipedes and dotted contours collide. Like the stopped clock that is correct twice a day, rarely do these two evocations of the mountain chains accord. We desire maps to tell us the truth, but here Dupain-Triel cruelly dashes expectations; all over the map, millipede chains traverse contours lines in a confusion of impossible highs and lows worthy of an Escher.There is one final ‘map of chains’ that has won a place in my heart. Here the paper is strewn with orange stickmen who have joined hands or lost legs, their waists and shoulder joints marked by spot heighted triangles. Rivers systems snake between them in blue while black dotted paths follow their courses before – very occasionally – heading directly for an orange leg or arm, then courtesy of a pass marked by a little bridge symbol “=”, cut across the ridge to join the banks of a different river. I was enjoying looking at its refreshing brevity of style while on a visit to the studio of fabulous ‘mountain artist’ Susan Dobson. The style seemed so novel I turned the map over to identify the maker: Robin G. Collomb ed,.

Who was Robin?

He was my best and oldest friend’s dad. Like Susan, he also loved to walk and draw in the mountains, there is now a website dedicated to his wonderful portrayals of high alpine peaks that bear absolutely no resemblance to the stripped back, diagrammatic orange stickmen. It is remarkable how one person can switch between such contrasting styles. I contacted my friend about the map, I’ll finish here with some words from her:

A guy contacted Dad with some dodgily acquired military maps and Dad reproduced them with a lot of letraset ! … I kept a full set. When we cleared out the house there were all the tracing paper originals with the letraset peeling off.

Images 1 & 3. 
J. L. Dupain-Triel, Carte de la France Où l'on a essayé de donner la Configuration de son Territoire, Par une Nouvelle Méthode de Nivellements, 1802. © The British Library Board, Maps 14312.(3.)

Image 2. 
Thomas Budgen, Ordnance Survey Drawing 89-2, Reigate, 1808. 
Courtesy of The British Library, available online:

Image 4. 
Robin G. Collomb ed., Indian Himalaya Maps (Leomann Maps, 2006)

About karenrann

Karen is a visual artist drawn to working from a sense of place
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2 Responses to Peak and Chain (stickmen and millipedes)

  1. Leo Amery says:

    Thanks Karen, forever illuminating. Bit of a millipede person myself……..;must be the french in me, lotsa love Leo.


    Liked by 1 person

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