Puzzled Europe | St Martin’s Lane (Covent Garden)

The Enlightenment (‘siècle des lumières’) was the age of European Union proper. Enlightenment was an outlook and an attitude: rational, inclusive, and outward-looking. Geography was its preferred science. Travel, travel-writing, and remote explorations excited the curiosity of the eighteenth century. From dangerous journeys to unexplored parts of the world to the ‘civilised’ passage of Grand Tourists, the age was on the move, both physically and intellectually. The ‘other’ was treated as an intriguing figure, not as a threat or risk. The ambition was to create an open and diverse society by bringing down barriers and borders that obstruct individuals to progress. Enlightenment was both a movement and a state of mind: an intellectual and psychological alliance, not an economic one. Economics alone will not built a community of minds. Instead, it tends to divide and destroy any sense of common purpose or perspective. 

Refugees played a crucial role in the spread of Enlightenment ideas. The Rainbow Coffee House Group was a circle of mainly Huguenot intellectuals who met informally at the Rainbow Coffee House in Lancaster Court, off St Martin’s Lane, where they exchanged books and ideas, and engaged in discussion on philosophical and theological topics associated with the growth of scepticism in early eighteenth century Europe. With links to Paris and the Low Countries, its members formed part of an international web for the free flow of ideas and views. Convention was the enemy. The driving force behind the group was the journalist and biographer Pierre Des Maizeaux. He promoted the circulation of English scientific and philosophical ideas on the Continent through his contributions to French-language periodicals published in the Netherlands, and maintained an impressive network of contacts. Pierre Coste was a close friend of Des Maizeaux and his translations of John Locke and Newton facilitated the spread of their work throughout Europe. Michael de la Roche was a journalist and translator who worked on the first English translation of Bayle’s Dictionnaire critique. He played a major role in the dissemination of English science and philosophy abroad, and conducted a campaign in favour of religious toleration. The unorthodox bias of the Rainbow group extended to its English members which included Richard Mead, a leading figure in the Royal Society, and the freethinking philosopher Anthony Collins.

Cartographer and author Jean [John] Palairet was born in 1697 in Montauban, near Toulouse, into a Huguenot household. The family was forced into exile and settled in The Hague where Jean’s father worked as a (wine?) merchant. Jean was educated in the Netherlands. At some time he entered the Dutch diplomatic service and was sent to London as an agent for the States General. He was in London by 1727 when he married his first wife Elizabeth Dawson. Having published Nouvelle introduction à la géographie modern in 1754, he created an Atlas méthodique on behalf of William, Prince of Orange (son of Princess Anne, daughter of George II) in 1755. The work offered him an entrance in English Royal circles and he acted as French teacher to three of the children of George II at Leicester House. He remained in Royal service under George III and, at the same time, represented the private interests of the Dutch diplomat, garden designer, and Anglophile Jacob Boreel. Another influential publication, also in 1755, was his Carte des possessions angloises et françoises d’Amérique septentrionale. His brother Elias Palairet, a classical and biblical philologist who had studied at Leiden University, also settled in London and preached at the Dutch Chapel at St James’s Palace, Westminster. 

Palairet’s maps had drawn the attention of author and educationist Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. Born in April 1711 in Rouen she had been engaged as governess at the court of Lunéville, residence of Duke Leopold, nephew of Louis XIV by marriage. Her duties were primarily with Elisabeth-Thérèse, oldest of the daughters (who, two years later, would marry Charles-Emmanuel III, King of Sardinia). Presence at court brought her in direct contact with many prominent figures, including Voltaire who became a regular contributor to her Nouveau magasin français (1750/2). Having separated from her husband in 1748, she left France for London. That same year she published her first novel Le triomphe de la vérité. She is remembered for her abridged version of La belle et la bête (better known as Beauty and the Beast), adapted from Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original and published in her Magasin des Enfants (1756), which has been hailed as the best female fiction published during the eighteenth century. To what extent the Enlightenment advanced female emancipation remains a topic of debate, but there can be no doubt that Mme De Beaumont played a significant role in the process.

In London, Beaumont was close to Henrietta Louisa Fermor, Lady Pomfret, who provided her with numerous introductions. Beaumont’s ideas on education (the use of interactive teaching tools) influenced Pomfret’s daughter, the future Lady Charlotte Finch, who from 1762 to 1793 was governess to the fifteen children of George III and Queen Charlotte. The urge to discover and explore the world was reflected in teaching. Practical map-making was an integral part of (aristocratic) male schooling, but young girls were introduced to geography as well. One of Beamont’s suggestions was that Jean Palairet’s maps should be used in the classroom. Finch took up that idea, possibly in consultation with Queen Charlotte who herself was an avid reader of books on the latest developments in child education. But how to teach map-reading to young brains in a playful manner?

The history of jigsaws started with the production of so-called ‘dissected maps’. Virtually all of the oldest surviving puzzles are made of engraved maps which were hand-cut with a fret (bow) saw into irregularly shaped pieces. They were created as educational tools. Beaumont made part of her income by running private classes which were advertised. Her teaching fee included a cost item for the use of wooden maps. An early commercial publisher of these puzzles was John Spilsbury who was based at Russel Court, off Drury Lane. A former apprentice of Thomas Jefferys, Geographer to the King, he is presented in the 1763 Universal Director as an ‘Engraver and Map Dissector in Wood’. His first puzzle map was called ‘Europe Divided into its Kingdoms’ and featured pieces cut along national boundaries. Charlotte Finch acquired such puzzles on behalf of the Royal family. These were (and remained) costly items. In Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park (1814), the poverty-struck heroine Fanny Price is mocked by two privileged cousins for her inability to ‘put the map of Europe together’ using one of those expensive puzzles. Such was the appeal of the new educational tool that by the end of century London was home to nearly twenty engravers who specialised in puzzle making. As the nineteenth century progressed and new colouring and cutting methods streamlined the manufacturing process, puzzle maps declined in cost and became accessible to a wider public. The use of the term jigsaw itself originates from the later nineteenth century (after 1870).

Charlotte Finch commissioned a mahogany cabinet to hold several dissected map puzzles which she had acquired for the Royal children (the cabinet has been preserved and is held at the V&A’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green). Eight of the maps in her puzzle cabinet were produced from Palairet’s Atlas méthodique and, most likely, dissected to her direction. In a project of Anglo-French participation, promoted by Dutch and Hanoverian Royalty, the map of Europe was cut into a multitude of pieces which were presented to young pupils to be put together again into a unified geographical entity. In our age of division and disintegration, this is a striking metaphor.