The globemaker with the whole world in his hands - and not just Earth

A workshop in London is resurrecting a moribund craft - one country at a time

Inside the world's only bespoke globe makers

Inside the world's only bespoke globe makers
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In a modest but roomy workshop in north London a team of craftspeople is resurrecting an art that faded out centuries ago – bespoke globemaking.

Along with his 20-strong workforce, Peter Bellerby makes globes, mostly of planet Earth but also of the Moon and Mars.

But these are not the mass-produced globes you might find in classroom or a library – these are handcrafted pieces of art with diameters from 12cms to well over a metre.

Prices start at about £1,200 ($1,462) and can reach in excess of £70,000 for a bespoke globe that will stand two metres high and finished to the exact specifications of the customer. At the moment, Bellerby's company sells about 500 globes a year, with most customers in the United States or Mena countries. On the day The National visits the workshop, a clutch of the painstakingly composed globes are lined up awaiting shipment to clients in the UAE.

“Some are incredibly specific," Bellerby tells The National when asked what his customers want. "Most people come in with a size they've imagined – they imagined either having a full-standing globe or table globe.

"Then we'll look at the sizes and they might go home and find a big yoga ball to hold up in the space where it's going to be, so they can get a visual of the size of the globe.

“We can help customers visualise what they want something to be. We have amazing illustrators here who will illustrate things that they want to depict on the globe. But usually, people have an idea of the sorts of things they want and we will help them to get to that.

“We'll do a full 3D render, which we will send to them so they can see exactly how it's going to be.”

Birthday present

In his book The Globemakers: The Curious Story of an Ancient Craft, Bellerby says "people have been fascinated by the idea of replicating our planet for many reasons, but perhaps most compelling of all because there is nothing like a globe to make us really think about our place in the universe".

The book covers not only his own journey to becoming a globemaker, but the roots of the craft itself, from the ancients Greeks and their predecessors who first discovered the Earth was a sphere, all the way through to Martin Behaim's Erdapfel (literally "Earth apple" in German), the world's oldest surviving terrestrial globe created in Nuremberg between 1492 and 1494 and beyond to the Renaissance periods of the 17th and 18th centuries when globemaking was at its zenith.

Since then, bespoke globemaking had fallen away and simple globes became better known as educational tools in classrooms, rather than works of art.

So, when Bellerby wanted to buy a globe as a present for his father's 80th birthday, he discovered a gap where art overlaps with cartography.

"I went to map shops and they had school globes, very functional. They didn't really have that much choice in aesthetic globes," he tells The National.

"I went to auction houses and they had some beautiful globes for around £10,000, but every single one needed restoration. Restoration of globes is very, very expensive, and even when it is restored it's still in a state of distress, because the worst thing about a globe is you can never get to the insides once it's constructed."

As such, the only route left to him in the pursuit of his father's present was to build it himself. This would turn out to be no mean feat, given that he had precious little experience in globemaking and despite gleaning much know-how in mechanics as a young man, had previous careers in television, nightclub management and property development.

“I had to make hundreds of globes to begin with to work out how to put a flat piece of paper on to a sphere," he tells The National.

"That's something that takes a long time to practise – you can't force that. I had to retrain my own way of moving. I started doing yoga to slow down my movements.

"So, I sometimes actually move quite slowly when I'm expressing myself, because when you are using thin strips of paper that you're wetting, they're incredibly fragile.

Those thin strips of paper are called gores. Most globes are manuscript globes where pieces of printed map are placed on the sphere.

A globe will have 12 to 48 (in multiples of 12) gores covering the surface, each one having to be placed with pinpoint accuracy, so that what was essentially a flat map becomes a spherical globe. Two calottes (named after the skullcap worn by Roman Catholic priests) are then place at the poles to hold down the tips of the gores.

“I had to fail many times but I wanted to get way beyond where I needed to get to produce the thing that I was comfortable with.

“Even though the first globe I made looked pretty good, I was aware it had massive failings that I needed to improve. So, I had to go many more steps ahead of where I wanted to be in order to be sure that what I was ending up with was the best method.”

When he started to make his father's globe, Bellerby thought it would take about three months and cost £3,000, after which he'd be able to go back to his normal job.

"It took me two years and cost between £100,000 and £200,000 to make that first globe," he recalls, which in the end didn't go to his father – he received the third globe, three years later.

Costs and curves

The reason he went "over budget dramatically" within the first three months was a combination of learning curve and an obsession with perfection.

“Simply put, there is a very strong reason why most buildings are straight-sided and why most buildings do not have curved or compound angles.

"It’s because your margin for error is so much smaller. If something goes wrong, you just have to start again, whereas if something goes wrong with a flat-sided building, you can allow for it.

"Once you're on a curved structure, everything gets multiplied. I was commissioning people to make moulds for me, so I could make the plaster of Paris moulds. As soon as you mentioned curves, it's almost like a little nought appears on the end of the invoice.”

But the need for everything to be absolutely perfect is still very much in practice in the workshop 15 years later. No globe leaves the studio if it's anything less than flawless.

Borders and names

Mapmaking has always been a potentially controversial subject and politicians have long-since attempted to mould cartography to their own means. There are border disputes, territorial claims and naming conventions that have been fought over for centuries.

This means Bellerby has to be part creative and part diplomat, and because his company ships the globes all over the world, they have to be sure they will be granted entry into certain countries and not offend political sensitivities.

“China won't allow us to mark Taiwan. So, we have to mark Taiwan as Chinese Taipei," he tells The National.

“We have to make sure the India/Pakistan border is correctly generated, otherwise it won't get through Indian customs.

"We have to be careful but we don't just willy-nilly remove countries. It has to be done very, very carefully.

"There are certain situations where we just say 'no, we won't do that'.

"If someone has the right motives behind something, then it's fine, but if it's to make a political point I don't think it is fine."

The globes themselves have to be incredibly strong but light enough to be able to be transported efficiently. So, while the smaller ones are solid, the large globes have a 4-5mm shell made out of fibreglass or glass-reinforced plastic (GRP).

“Ultimately, we're producing a piece of art. Not only that, we're producing a piece of art that we're encouraging people to interact with the whole time.

"Which is almost a crazy thing – you would never paint a beautiful painting and tell your customers to run their fingers across it every single day until it wore away.

"So, we make everything, firstly, incredibly strong. We over-engineer everything."

Catering to the customer needs is a top priority. Often, the client will want the globe to tell a personal story, a family story.

"We will add as many details about a customer's life as they want. We can add on illustrations, we can add different things that are representative of their life," Bellerby says.

“Once people come into the studio and see other globes and see what the possibilities are, then that's when they get into it.

"So, we have people taking years to confirm all the different edits that they want on a globe.

"Sometimes, it's just that they have an amazing trip coming up in a year and a half and they want to wait until they've done that trip so they can then put it on the globe. It’s a world of possibilities.”

Organic growth

Business is booming as well. Six years ago, the company expanded to cope with what was a burgeoning order book and the waiting list is now between four and 18 months, depending on the globe and the order.

But for now, Bellerby is comfortable allowing the company to grow organically. Given that it takes at least a year to train someone in the intricate manufacturing process, rapid expansion is neither possible nor ideal.

Plus, there's a uniqueness about each Bellerby globe that could be lost if this tight-knit band of artists and artisans grows into a much larger, industrial, factory-based operation.

"Everything we make here is going around the studio and engages with a different maker, a different painter or a different woodworker.

"Everyone knows the name of the customer, because each globe is known by the customer’s name.

"I always want to keep that bespoke nature of what we do.”

Updated: October 02, 2023, 3:15 PM