New Acquisition: Ed Fairburn Map Art

"Topopointillism" portraiture reimagines the visual language of maps, its lines, shapes, and patterns.

1705949791046 e070f85e ba2c 47f3 acd3 9df14235df32 1

"Borrowdale, United Kingdom," by Ed Fairburn. Call number: map1F G5752.L2A9 2017 .F35

From a recent acquisition to the Newberry Library’s world-class map collection emerges a new way of interpreting the visual language of maps, one focused less on the use of the topographic lines to interpret our physical surroundings and more on the abstract shadows, shapes, and patterns the lines can create. Ed Fairburn, a British artist known for portraits he renders in ink, paint, and graphite over recycled maps, uses a style he refers to as topopointillism which combines the study of topography with the artistic practice of pointillism.

In the map artwork the Newberry acquired, titled “Borrowdale, United Kingdom,” Fairburn creates a dense contrast between the muted colors of the map and thick ink lines to tease out an abstract portrait of a woman. Drawn on a 1920’s map of the Lake District of North West England, this portrait is somewhat of a departure from Fairburn’s typical style, in which he utilizes graphite cross-hatching to render his portraits in much greater detail.

"Borrowdale, United Kingdom," by Ed Fairburn. Call number: map1F G5752.L2A9 2017 .F35
Map of the Lake District of North West, England, from The English Lake District Thorough Guides. Call number: Bakses G153 .T56 Lake District (1923)

Measuring about 17 centimeters wide, this portrait, like many of Fairburn’s works, is better viewed from a slight distance. When viewed up close the portrait is lost in the abstraction of the map’s lines, whereas when the viewer takes a step back, the portrait emerges clearly from the patterns of color and contrast that Fairburn creates. The paradoxical nature of the portrait losing detail when examined closely results in the preservation of the map’s original functionality. In combining portraiture and cartography, Fairburn strives to reflect the coexistence of landscape and figure, environment and humanity, form and function.

This acquisition reflects a current goal of David Weimer, Director of the Smith Center and Robert A. Holland Curator of Maps at the Newberry: to put contemporary artists’ engagement with maps in conversation with the centuries-long relationship between art and cartography richly represented in the Newberry’s collection. You may view Fairburn’s portrait and the original map in-person at the Newberry or may click the links below for more information.

More information about Fairburn's portrait.

Sign Up for Our Mailing List

Let's get on the same page. Start receiving updates about Newberry programs, collections, and digital resources right in your inbox.