Topic: Interview

Rick Britton: Portrait of the (Map) Artist

by Jane Haxby, Copy Editor, and Kathryn Lebert, Communications Specialist
September 6, 2017

British Operations Against Charleston, S.C. (1780), as originally published in Revolutionary War Series, volume 24. Copyright of Rick Britton.

In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s take on Hamlet, Rosencrantz tells Guildenstern that he doesn’t believe in England. Guildenstern shoots back, “Just a conspiracy of cartographers, you mean?”1

Here at The Washington Papers, we may not have the makings of a conspiracy, but—amazingly—we do have a cartographer. Historian, photographer, and tour guide, Rick Britton conspires with our editors to craft the maps that appear in our volumes.2 Perhaps more accurately described as, in his words, a “map illustrator,” Britton draws maps by hand using historical references and a list of landmarks compiled by the editors. He goes beyond simply including all the necessary elements, however: His maps are not only accurate and scholarly, but original works of art.

How does one become a historical map illustrator? For Britton, it began with an interest in history. As he tells it, when he was a teenager, he “just fell in love with the maps in the old history books, the maps the way they looked back then, the maps the way they were drawn during the Civil War and during the American Revolution.” He taught himself to enlarge maps using the same “grid method” artists have been using for centuries. This involves drawing a grid over an image and then proportionally reproducing that image by using a larger grid of equal ratio.3 He covered his bedroom walls with freehand reproductions of his favorite maps. And in the course of copying the maps he loved, he also learned how to draw the terrain symbols and other graphic design elements used by the cartographers of those periods.

Britton still revels in the details of historically accurate maps. For him, “it’s all about making it fit the period.” As with all true craftsmen, the joy he takes in the details of his art shines through. In the map of Virginia that will appear in the upcoming edition of George Washington’s Barbados diary, Britton drew icons for the buildings that were important in Washington’s youth, including his childhood home (now called Ferry Farm) and his later residence, Mount Vernon. To render these tiny images, he found depictions online of the buildings as they looked at the time, drew them, and then shrunk them (now using modern technology rather than his early training in the grid method). For the same upcoming volume, Britton mapped the route to Barbados that Washington recorded in his ship’s log, as recreated mathematically by editor Alicia K. Anderson. For that map, he departed from the border that he has made standard for The Washington Papers and drew a new one based on eighteenth-century nautical maps. He reflects that the period-specific border was “pretty complicated to draw, but it makes the whole thing fit.”

Northeast New Jersey (1780), as originally published in Revolutionary War Series, volume 25. Copyright of Rick Britton.

Skillfully using pencil and compass, Britton illuminates events for readers of presidential papers, including The Washington Papers, The Papers of James Madison, and The Papers of Thomas Jefferson; for students of the American Civil War and World Wars I and II; and even for players of a Tolkien-based game for which he hand-lettered maps of Middle Earth. Partly because his maps often depict places and scenarios that no longer exist—or that exist only in the imagination—Britton routinely cannot visit the sites he illustrates. But even when he is unable to see an area, his work offers a new perspective on it, not only for readers but for himself as well. In the course of his research into the Civil War battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, two Confederate forts whose captures opened major waterways to the Union army, Britton’s geographical fluency helped him to grasp the brilliance of General Ulysses S. Grant’s gunboat strategy. Grant knew that the Tennessee River, on which Fort Henry stood, and the Cumberland River, likewise guarded by Fort Donelson, flow north into the Ohio. “Of course, looking at the map I could see it!” Britton marvels. “Even though [the steam-paddle gunboats were] going south, they were going upriver to bombard the boats and the forts on the land. If they got in too much trouble—for example, if they were getting too much enemy fire—all they had to do was cut the engines and float away.”4

Britton is particularly interested in the minutiae of historical engagements and the unique ability of maps to convey those details. Two of Britton’s favorites among his own works are his illustrations of Northeast New Jersey and of British operations against Charleston, S.C., both in 1780 (published in Revolutionary War Series volumes 24 and 25, and reproduced here). He enjoys illustrating in such detail because “it makes it so much easier for the reader to understand exactly what happened.” On a deeper level, the historian within him values maps like these because such “small-unit actions” have been “largely overlooked, and it’s so important for us to honor those who fought, and suffered, and died on our behalf.”

Rick Britton advances the study of and joy in history in everything he does. He confesses that he loves “things the way they used to be.” The twin goals of documentary editing are scholarship and accessibility, helping a wider audience understand the past. Britton’s maps offer both, and the volumes of The Washington Papers that have the good fortune to include them are all the more beautiful for it.

 

Notes

  1. Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (New York, 1967), Act 3, p. 106.
  2. Find Rick Britton’s website at http://www.rickbritton.com.
  3. Find step-by-step instructions in the “grid” technique at https://sibleyfineart.com/tutorial–gridding-art.htm.
  4. For a summary of the battle of Fort Henry, see https://www.nps.gov/abpp/battles/tn001.htm. For an 1875 map showing the two forts and their respective rivers, see https://www.civilwar.org/learn/maps/positions-fort-henry-fort-donelson.

Complicating the Enemy: Samuel Roukin on Turn: Washington’s Spies

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
February 10, 2017

SamuelRoukin

Samuel Roukin is used to strangers coming up to him and saying, “I hate you.” And he loves it. Roukin has portrayed the villainous John Graves Simcoe on the AMC television series Turn: Washington’s Spies for three seasons, and the British officer is a character fans love to hate. “My job is to humanize,” says Roukin. “That means it’s working.”

Roukin studied history in his native England before moving to the United States a year prior to joining the cast of Turn. Unsurprisingly, the American Revolution was not a part of his curriculum. “In England, as a kid, you don’t get taught about the Revolution,” he says. “It didn’t have the same impact.” So, upon earning the role of Captain Simcoe, the actor sought to gain a deeper understanding of the era. As events appeared in the script, Roukin would delve into them using secondary and primary sources. He examined documents about the war and asked questions about everyday life of the era. “The Washington Papers was a source where I could pull out directly relevant documents,” he notes. In December 2016, he visited The Washington Papers offices for further insights into the documents. But on Turn, his job is to make the past come alive again, and research is only one part of making that connection. Once the cameras began rolling, the history books were set aside, and Roukin began creating a real person for the audience.

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A Mount Vernon Democracy: The Popularized Image of George Washington’s Home

By Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
December 10, 2016

More than just a man, George Washington is a symbol of our revolutionary spirit and democratic principles. Lydia Brandt, architectural historian and professor at the University of South Carolina, studies Mount Vernon, his home, to explore whether it holds similarly iconic status. In her new book, titled First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination, Brandt surveys Mount Vernon’s memory in the American imagination. Recently, she sat down with us to reflect on the results of her investigation.

Brandt’s interest in the subject was sparked when she began to notice replications of Mount Vernon. Soon after, friends affirmed her hunch, by finding Mount Vernon elsewhere: “People used to send me photos and postcards of buildings that looked like Mount Vernon.” But it was not until she began tracking all the various examples that she saw a pattern. The house had become a revered symbol, much like George Washington.

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Meeting Mr. Madison

by Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
October 7, 2016

“You have to have a little ham in you,” James Madison recently told me. Or rather Kyle Jenks, the living history interpreter who portrays James Madison, told me.

Jenks and I were having lunch in Gordonsville, Virginia, just a few miles away from Madison’s home, Montpelier. I had the pleasure of meeting with Jenks and Tom Pitz, who plays Thomas Jefferson, to learn more about first-person historic interpretation.

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Lessons in Courage and Responsibility: Ian Kahn of Turn: Washington’s Spies

By Kim Curtis and Lynn Price
June 7, 2016

IMG_0205[3]Ian Kahn knows George Washington. For three seasons, he has played the General on the AMC television series Turn: Washington’s Spies. An accomplished stage actor, Kahn has also appeared on Dawson’s Creek and Sex and the City. Washington Papers editors Kim Curtis and Lynn Price recently spoke with Kahn about his work on Turn, what this season holds in store, and what George Washington means to him.

When he initially heard about the role of General Washington on Turn, Kahn says, “I thought how wild and wacky it was to play George Washington, but then I read the character description… and I thought, ‘I think I’ve got an idea about how to do this.’” As Kahn began working on the script during his first audition, his hopes were confirmed that he could indeed figure out how to play someone like Washington.

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On the Set with Associate Editor William M. Ferraro: An Interview About his Role in the Film Monroe Hill

October 9, 2015

Associate Editor William M. Ferraro will soon be featured as an historical contributor in a documentary about James Monroe’s farm home Monroe Hill. Director Eduardo Montes-Bradley‘s film Monroe Hill overviews the trials James Monroe faced in running the unproductive plantation, in following his political obligations, and in strengthening a new nation. Continue reading