You just never know how adept someone will be with their fingers,” says Peter Bellerby. “It’s such an intricate job and one that brings a massive sense of achievement, the stress aside. It comes with a huge feeling of relief.”
Indeed, Bellerby’s craftspeople may well wish to rest on the seventh day, having put many hours into shaping another world, on which they might look and see that it is better than good. For in a world of Google Maps and GPS, in which your place on the planet can not only be measured but also viewed, Bellerby is one of the last surviving makers of globes. “This,” he adds, “is not the kind of work you can do with a hangover. You need stillness and patience. If I had concentrated as much at school as I do when making a globe, I might have done rather better than I did.”
Perhaps that was a saving grace. Perhaps it was telling that the one subject he did do well in was geography. As it was, Bellerby went into property wheeling-and-dealing and, back in around 2007, was looking for a birthday present for his naval architect father. Settling on a globe, Bellerby found that bespoke makers of globes had more or less disappeared from the face of the planet. Not one to give up, he decided he would make one himself. “It was a classic case of blissful ignorance, of thinking ‘well, how hard can it be?’” he recalls.
He soon found out. For one, having studied vintage globes and through trying to speak to ex-globemakers, there appeared to be no agreed methodology to the process. There was no agreement on the best type of paper to use, or the ideal glue. He discovered that while plaster of Paris is fine for the foundation of smaller, desktop globes, the weighting of larger ones (such as his company’s awesome 4.2ft-diameter Churchill), requires resin, for which he works with a company specialising in making parts for Formula One cars. It was by accident that he found a way of mixing pigments that gave a convincing shadow effect to coastlines.
He also discovered, through painstaking trial and error, that printing and then matching the strips of paper that give a globe its surface detail requires this hand craft to have mathematical precision — allow each of the perhaps 48 sections on a typical globe to be a one-tenth of a millimetre out and by the time the surface is covered, you can find yourself with a centimetre gap. “Whole countries can go missing,” as Bellerby puts it. “You’re always battling with pi. It’s why learning how to make even a small globe can take a year of practice to get right. It’s an intensive apprenticeship.”
This is not the kind of work you can do with a hangover
But having gone so far in this curious venture, he felt compelled to plough on and turn it into a business, Bellerby & Co Globemakers. For the first six months he wouldn’t even tell anyone what he was doing — in part out of concern that failure in this esoteric venture was somehow inevitable, in part out of embarrassment at what he saw as its inherent strangeness.
For the first 18 months, the company — making globes at a starting price of around £1,000 and anything up to a seismic £59,000 — ran at a loss. But clearly Bellerby had answered a need. A decade on and his team of 12 makers have full order books. While most of the company’s commissions are to private individuals, the latest is to reproduce an 18th-century celestial globe for the Louvre, which involved reverse engineering the original’s copper plates.
“For an artist, that’s just about the ultimate commission. And as a non-artist I didn’t really appreciate it when we won the job,” laughs Bellerby. “I always wanted to make maybe 1,000 globes a year, but no more than that, because I want each globe to be special. We still refer to each globe by the customer’s name. And I have no problem telling people what I do for a living now.”
The appeal of Bellerby’s globes is that they are, in and of themselves, special. While, for instance, some are mounted on the traditional pole-to-pole spindle, others are free-floating on a complex roller-ball mechanism (allowing free movement of the globe in all directions but always leaving it in the upright position) that he devised in conjunction with a company that oversees the restoration of classic Aston Martins.
As these are bespoke products, clients can also choose to express their own world view, for good or ill. One Brazilian client wanted the planet inverted so that his home country was more prominent — not a smart aesthetic idea, Bellerby notes, if only for the reason that people tend to be unaware of just how much of the world’s land mass is located in the northern hemisphere. Another, nameless, Middle Eastern client wanted a globe in which Israel had mysteriously disappeared altogether. Bellerby diplomatically declined that job.
“The detail can be very personal,” he says. “We put on World Heritage Sites of special interest to the client, Indian temples, pyramids, a junk off Hong Kong. We’ve done a globe illustrating feeding whales, which was pretty crazy. But it also means clients can include towns or villages that might not normally make it on to a standard globe because they’re too small.”
Indeed, even without explicit instructions, urban density has to be balanced out around these little worlds — to prevent, say, Europe looking jam-packed and Africa largely empty. And maintaining accuracy by keeping pace with constant geopolitical shifts alone can feel like a full-time job — all the more so given the lack of a global cartographic governing body to act as the last word on borders and place names.
“Even the UN doesn’t recognise all countries,” Bellerby says. “The seas between countries get given new names and occasionally even countries change names. India seems to change the names of its states every year. These are often hotly disputed issues, so we just have to decide one way or another. We recently ruled on the border between Russia and Crimea…”
Whole countries can go missing. You are always battling with pi
But the appeal of his globes, he argues, goes deeper than the possibility for a moment of megalomania, “though globes always were an expression of power, of knowledge”, he notes. “One client explicitly wanted his globe mounted on rollers so he could pick it up. Perhaps there is an appeal to being able to manoeuvre something you normally can’t — in the way that a child can pick up a toy car when they can’t pick up an actual car. There’s a good reason why kids find globes fascinating. It’s that first step to trying to understand how the world works.”
A globe, Bellerby adds, may at base be a distinctive and impressive piece of furniture. And it’s also a chance to have in one’s home an artefact of genuine resonance, to which one can become attached — especially after a prolonged period of, he suggests, “people overfilling their homes with lots of mass-produced and largely meaningless things”.
“Globes will always be fascinating to people — because we travel more, but also because they’re inspirational tools. They’re a reminder of where you’re from and where you want to go. And because we all live on this planet that we’re more or less ruining,” says a slightly riled Bellerby. Perhaps like astronauts who went to the Moon and returned with a profoundly new perspective on the world, working with globes, he says, does make you think differently, more ecologically, about the planet.
Yes, a world map is fine, Bellerby says, although it’s typically a projection, designed to represent something other than reality — one reason why the UK tends to look so disproportionately large. Atlases are good, he adds — and he speaks as someone who spent much of his childhood with his nose buried deep inside one. But a globe gives you the big picture of a small, fragile planet. “It’s always the globe that makes you want to know more,” he says.