James Wyld was an eminent Victorian geographer and map maker, Member of Parliament and businessman who also turned the world inside out with his ‘Great Globe’.
Wyld was born in 1812 and named after his father, the geographer royal James Wyld who had introduced the art of lithography to England, using it to create his maps for the quartermaster-general’s office.
Wyld the younger was educated by the army at Woolwich to prepare him to assume the title of geographer royal which he did when his father died from overwork in 1836.
In addition to his official duties, Wyld also made a successful business out of map-making and owned premises in Charing Cross and the Royal Exchange which were regularly visited by the great and the good.
His enthusiasm for maps and statistical information was such that Punch magazine said that if a country were discovered in the interior of the earth then Wyld would produce a map of it ‘as soon as it is discovered, if not before’.
Among the many maps that Wyld produced was one of Afghanistan, complete with geographical notes and the routes of troops, at the time of the first Afghan war. (No change there then)
Other maps included ‘A Map of the Gold Regions of California, with Geographical and Mineralogical Notes’, maps of the Ottoman Empire and the Black Sea with geographical and hydrographical notes, and Wyld’s Military Map of the United States in 1861.
You can also find his Notes on the Distribution of Gold throughout the World, with a Gazetteer of the Gold Diggings of Australia online today.
But there is also a clue to his greatest geographical achievement on the title page of that publication where he gave his address as ‘Model of the Earth, Leicester Square’.
For many years Wyld had harboured the idea of creating a giant globe and an opportunity to realise it came with the Great Exhibition of 1851. He put his plan forward to the organising committee which rejected it on the grounds that its main purpose was to promote Wyld’s business interests.
Undeterred, Wyld set about looking for another location for his project and settled on Leicester Square, then a derelict area ‘with broken railings, a receptacle for dead cats and every kind of abomination’.
After various legal wranglings, Wyld obtained use of the site for ten years and set about a building similar to the Coliseum in Regent’s Park which was reached by newly laid gardens.
Examples of Wyld’s maps hung in the entrance that was paved with ‘patent lava’ and examples of his work were on display. The decoration was also lavish with internal pillars copied from the Alhambra and the lit by gas from globe-shaped lamps.
But it was Wyld’s Great Globe interior that the paying-public came to see for he had turned the earth inside out on the inner walls of the great sphere.
The world map was represented on a scale of ten miles to the inch made up of 6,000 individual plaster cast pieces that also gave a 3-D view of the earth’s topography, although the scale of mountains and valley had to be exaggerated by increasing the scale tenfold.
It was an impressive feat of design, especially since the plaster casts had to align perfectly while also having a curved base to fit the spherical wall and it took Wyld three attempts to get it right.
The globe did not feature national or political boundaries and bore no country names. Wyld also used artistic licence with the geographical features, painting fertile areas green and deserts yellow while volcanoes were bright red with cotton wool smoke and mountains were given crystal snow-capped peaks.
The attraction was extremely popular and the number of visitors and gas lighting meant that it became very hot inside despite the ventilation system hidden in the featureless wastes of the arctic, perhaps an early depiction of global warming!
No record of visitor numbers was recorded but there were 1.2 million in 1851 alone and these included such luminaries as the Duke of Wellington, Lord Castlereigh and Prince Albert who Wyld dedicated the project to.
Plans were made to expand the attraction to include a national geographic and ethnological museum, but this came to nothing, and in 1853 the prospector John Calvert exhibited his collection of gold nuggets and precious stones found in Australia. The ‘nuggets’ turned out to be nothing more than painted lead and Wyld took Calvert to court.
Other later additions included an Oriental Museum, a model of Stonehenge, dioramas of the Crimean War and a raised-relief map of Sevastopol complete with models soldiers, and Arctic exhibition featuring stuffed polar bears and a collection of captured Russian weapons that was visited by Queen Victoria in 1855.
The Great Globe undoubtedly made a profit for Wyld, but attendances fell as competition grew from such new attractions as the Diorama and Cyclorama in Regent’s Park, the Gallery of Illustration in Regent Street, and the Panorama of Paris and Versailles in the Linwood Gallery in Leicester Square.
The lease on the land expired in 1862 and Wyld sold the building to William Wilde, proprietor of the Alhambra, but that too ended in a civil court case. The now dilapidated building was demolished and Leicester Square returned to its former ruinous state.
As mentioned at the beginning, Wyld had other interests to occupy him. He was the Liberal MP for Bodmin from 1847 to 1852, and again from 1857 to 1868, and was instrumental in establishing the Association of Surveyors. He also promoted industrial schools in Manchester, Leeds and Bristol.
He possessed no fewer than seventeen European orders, including the Legion of Honour, and a gold medal for scientific merit from the King of Prussia.
Wyld died at his home in South Kensington in 1887 and although his Great Globe is long gone we have a computerised simulation to gives us some idea of what it might have looked like.