Mapping memorable landmarks

Words by:
Kate Chapman
Featured in:
December 2023

Kate Chapman meets artist Fiona Duncan, who specialises in creating bespoke artworks on Ordnance Survey maps.

Fiona Duncan really has been putting her artwork on the map – by painting landmarks, including Lincoln Castle and Belton House onto vintage maps of their locations to create striking and unique pieces.

Fiona, who was previously a clerk in the WRAF, was inspired by a piece of art she bought while living in Germany and decided to create something similar herself during the first lockdown in 2020.

After honing her technique Fiona has found that her pieces – which feature national and local landmarks and even people’s houses – are popular with those who like the idea of places they are familiar with being immortalised in a more unusual way.

“I bought this picture of a lighthouse painted onto a map about 15 years ago, and I remember I kept thinking I could do something like that, but that’s as far as it went,” says Fiona, who lives near Lincoln.
“When the first lockdown came around I thought I’d have a go – although I didn’t really know where to start!

“Maps to me were a road atlas and that was it. I didn’t think of Ordnance Survey, so I started painting on old road atlases and what I came up with was dreadful. But I wasn’t put off. A friend had been clearing out her father-in-law’s house and found a big box of Ordnance Survey maps, which she said I could have, and I started painting on those too.

“Then my sister told me I shouldn’t be using them like that because of copyright and that I needed to stop immediately, which panicked me a bit. But I contacted Ordnance Survey direct, and they said as long as the maps were over 50 years old and out of copyright, there wasn’t a problem. That gave me a nice little extra niche, as all the maps I’m using now are vintage. That’s really where it started.”

Vintage maps

Fiona’s pieces feature an acrylic painting, usually a landmark associated with the area of the map she’s working on. Her first map art was of Covesea Lighthouse, on the Moray Firth Coast, in Scotland, which was bought by one of her former colleagues and friends living in New Zealand, who had met her husband in that area.

Since then, she’s taken on commissions and painted numerous Lincolnshire landmarks, including Lincoln Cathedral, Doddington Hall, Petwood Hotel, Sleaford’s Bass Maltings and areas around the Lincolnshire Wolds.

“I’ve really been cornering the market with vintage maps from Lincolnshire – that has been my core area,” says Fiona, “although I have also done paintings from Land’s End up to Shetland, and many other places in between.

“I’m happy to have a go at anything, although I do try and avoid people and animals, I’m not really an animal artist, I much prefer buildings and landmarks.

“Because of the area we’re in, I’ve had a few requests to do aircraft too. I recently painted a Typhoon flying over RAF Coningsby, which went down well with the customer, and I’ve also done some Lancasters, Vulcans and Red Arrows over RAF Scampton.

“I’ve even painted someone’s caravan and have been asked by people to paint their houses as well. A lot of the time I get requests for pieces featuring places that someone has a special connection with – maybe where they were born, married or where they were brought up. Nothing is out of the question – as long as I can do it! And sourcing the maps has been fine so far, you can pick them up in charity shops and eBay.”

Capturing history
Fiona plans her paintings on plain paper first and only moves onto the map itself once her customer is happy with her initial drawings. She sells her artwork at a variety of events and craft fairs as well as online, where she has a dedicated Facebook page and an Etsy shop stocked with her originals, prints, cards and other gifts.

“I much prefer the in-person events,” she says. “You can explain the history of the map, and why I am using maps that are over 50 years old. When people hear it’s a map from 1965, or ’55, they become really interested and understand it’s a historical piece of work. And that’s what I enjoy, I like painting something with a bit of history.”

Rural life
Fiona has always been interested in art, but it took a while before she was persuaded to paint herself. She grew up in north Cumbria and signed up to the WRAF in February 1977, when she was 17-and-a-half, inspired by her mum and sister who also served.

Her first post was as a clerk at Stanmore Park, just outside London, which she didn’t enjoy as she missed the countryside.

She was moved to Swanton Morley, in Norfolk, where she made a fabulous group of friends, and also met her husband Jim. After having their first child she had to leave the service, although briefly re-joined at RAF Scampton in the early 1990s, and then moved around the country and overseas with Jim’s postings. Having spent time in Lincolnshire, the couple decided to live near Lincoln after Jim was made redundant.

It was Fiona’s sister who sparked her interest in art and gave her the push to have a go herself.

“Every time I went to visit my sister, I’d always say something like ‘I wish I could paint like you!’ and on one occasion she just told me to go and find a class – so I did!” she recalls.

“I began with watercolours, but they just weren’t right for me, I think it’s probably the most difficult medium to master, as once it’s on the paper things are very difficult to change.

“I joined another class and discovered acrylics, which are less immediate in their use, you can change things and come back to them later if needed.

“I started doing landscapes – there’s lot of inspiration here in Lincolnshire, but we often went to Scotland, so there were lots of paintings of the area around there too.

“I’m not at my easel six hours a day, but I’m certainly a lot busier than I have been for a long time and this time of year I’m at events most weekends, but I’m enjoying it. I’m happy to keep doing what I’m doing and see where it leads.”

To find out more about Fiona’s work, follow her on Facebook at @fiduncart or X (formerly Twitter)

Photographs: Fiona Duncan

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