John Seller Sr.
The 'Atlas Maritimus'

By Ashley Baynton-Williams
John Seller Sr. (d.1697) is one of the most important figures in the early history of the map and chart-publishing trade in England.  He was the first Englishman to try establish an atlas-publishing business comparable with Continental firms, such as Blaeu, Jansson, de Wit, Goos, Colom & Doncker.

No other London publisher of his day offered the variety of stock that Seller sold. In folio form he published a celestial atlas, two terrestrial atlases, a sea-atlas, several coasting pilots, as well as a large number of separately-issued charts.  In addition, he also published number of navigation handbooks, almanacs, pocket books, miniature sea-atlases, and made a variety of mathematical and navigational instruments and tools.

Unfortunately his efforts were built on shaky foundations and were ultimately unsuccessful.  For much of his business life Seller walked a narrow line between solvency and bankruptcy.  In 1677 bankruptcy was averted only by Seller entering into partnership with a consortium of interested parties, principally William Fisher, a leading printer and seller of navigation books, and John Thornton, a noted manuscript chartmaker who was beginning to make the successful transition into the printed chart trade.

While one explanation of this is Seller's own lack of business acumen, his career also emphasises that the domestic market in Britain for printed maps and atlases was simply too small to absorb the output of an active and innovative publisher.  Seller's failed to marshal his limited resources and direct them into one project at a time.  Instead he endeavoured to produce too many divers atlases and pilots at one time and did none of them particularly well

Seller paid a heavy price for the rescue by Thornton and Fisher.  When the partnership was dissolved in 1679, Fisher retained the publishing rights for Seller's two main sea-atlases, English Pilot for the Southern Navigation and the Atlas Maritimus, and also took several map-plates and some of the stock of printed sheets.  Thornton received some of Seller's stock of printing plates.

Seller made one last effort to restore his business, planning an ambitious county atlas from new surveys: this project also foundered, and thereafter he remained a small-time player, while his former partners expanded and prospered.

Seller's principal folio atlas, and the one most frequently encountered today, was the Atlas Maritimus, first published in 1675.  This sea-atlas was completely composite in make-up, being assembled according to the wish of the individual purchaser rather than to a standard format, although built round a standard core. 

Accordingly, the content can vary considerably. The example being described is among the largest of such collections that I have seen, and is noteworthy for the way Seller had combined charts from the Atlas Maritimus of Frederick de Wit, published circa 1675, with his own, to make a total of forty-three charts.

Among the most interesting of the Seller charts are the group of astronomical charts and the map of the North Pole, which were prepared in 1676 or 1677, and so are found only in late examples of the atlas.

The example of the atlas described was dispersed in separate sheets, or lots, at two auctions in London.  At the time an attempt was made to acquire all the Seller charts, to reconstitute the Seller element for a collector.  Unfortunately, while all the charts from the first sale were purchased, three of the most valuable, all already present in the client's collection, proved evasive.  After the sale, the letterpress titlepage was purchased from the vendors, who retained the engraved title, although it was photographed at the time.

The atlas now forms part of the Lawrence Slaughter Collection, in the New York Public Library's Map Division.