Strata: William Smith’s Geological Maps, with contributions by Oxford University Museum of Natural History, with a foreword by Robert Macfarlane

In my recent review of Marvellous Microfossils, I wrote:

This is a lovely book – a glorious mixture of a beautiful coffee-table book and an academic treatise of the highest quality. … To put it bluntly, this is great choice for a Christmas or birthday present for the discerning! Or maybe just a present for yourself. I couldn’t recommend it more.”

Well, I stand by that assessment, but this book – Strata: William Smith’s Geological Maps – is even better (if that’s possible). It is truly sumptuous, and yet is also a comprehensive discussion of William Smith’s maps (including the revolutionary ‘A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with part of Scotland’) and career. It is beautifully produced, printed on quality paper and the full colour illustrations are outstanding.

The life and geological contribution of William Smith has always been a fascination to me – he went from being the son of a blacksmith and apprentice surveyor, to fossil collector, and is now referred to as the “Father of English Geology”. Therefore, there is inevitably much for this work to consider. To this end, its introduction considers his work in the context of earlier, concurrent and subsequent ideas about the structure and natural processes of the earth.

Strata is then organised into four geographical sections, with each starting with four sheets from the 1815 map, along with the relevant geological cross-sections and county maps from the period 1819 to 1824. These sections also contain the relevant Sowerby fossil illustrations from his 1816-2019 work, Strata Identified by Organised fossils.

Amongst these four sections are essays by leading academics that discuss the intentions behind Smith’s work, and its application in mining, agriculture, cartography, fossil collecting and hydrology, together with its influence on biostratigraphical theories and the science of geology. The book concludes by covering Smith’s later work as an itinerant geologist and surveyor, the outrageous plagiarism by the President of the Geological Society, George Bellas Greenough, Smith’s receipt of the first Wollaston Medal in 1831, and the influence of his geological mapping and biostratigraphical theories on the natural sciences. This latter aspect of his work culminated in the modern geological timescale.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, whose academic staff contributed to this book, holds what it describes as “an unrivalled William Smith collection”, including the 1815 map and unpublished county maps, and also an archive of diaries, letters, published works, charts and plans. However, if you have access to Burlington House on Piccadilly in Mayfair, London (home to, among others, the Geological Society of London and the Geologists’ Association), you can see the map on the stairs up to the library.

Will Gompertz, the BBC Arts Editor (and he of that glorious haircut!) states:

Some books are beautiful, others are enlightening. Strata is both. Packed with exquisite illustrations, it presents the work of William Smith … who was the first person to comprehensively map the earth beneath our feet. It’s the best non-fiction book I’ve read in a long time.”

Well, I couldn’t agree more.

Strata: William Smith’s Geological Maps, with contributions by Oxford University Museum of Natural History, with a foreword by Robert Macfarlane, Thames & Hudson Ltd; London, (2020), 256 pages (hardback), ISBN: 978-0500252475

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