Peter Bellerby travels around the world many times a day. Admittedly, the world he deals with will sit on your desk or, at their biggest, some 4.2ft across, in the corner of a room. “Working with globes definitely makes you think about things differently,” he says. “You can see the Earth’s curvature. It makes you want to discover more, to travel more. It gives you a sense of the whole world. And when you’re holding a globe in your hands, it makes you feel like the world is a rather fragile place.”
Actually, one could drop a Bellerby globe and it would probably dent the floor or break your foot. His little planets are tough, made of traditional plaster for the largest models and resin for the smaller ones. They are formed in moulds prepared by a specialist company more used to making parts for Formula 1 cars and are necessary to give the globe the right weighting. If most globes spin on one axis, Bellerby’s are mounted on a complex roller-bearing mounting — developed by an Aston Martin engineer — so they can spin freely in any direction. It is another benefit for those in need of feeling even more god-like.
That wasn’t Bellerby’s intention. He was looking for a globe as a gift for his father, a naval architect, and couldn’t find a decent one. It seems that almost every traditional globe-maker had gone out of business in the decades up to the 1960s, perhaps ultimately trumped by Google Maps. So he decided to make a couple. “It was almost a bet to myself: just how hard can it be?” he says. “But then I found out just how hard it can be.” From his base in north London, Bellerby discovered not only that there were no masters of the craft to follow, but there wasn’t even an agreed best practice in making a globe either: and he spent thousands in trial and error trying to work it out.
“I assumed, for example, that there would be a certain type of paper and adhesive used to cover each globe,” he says. “I’d go to paper-makers and they had no idea because globe-making is such a niche industry. Well, it turns out there is no secret paper or secret glue. Rather it’s all just a question of being bloody-minded.”
Then there were the more topical and artistic problems: without any widely recognised regulations or even guidelines in cartography, it was down to him how best to interpret the many city and even country names frequently changing around the world, often due to political situations of uncertain conclusion (take the state of Sudan, for example); then, says Bellerby, if you put too many places on your globe across Europe, suddenly much of Africa looks bereft and your globe is visually unbalanced.
A bigger issue was that his grand plan to make planets was costing more and more, to the point where he realised that, if he was to make his expenditure count, he may as well launch an artisan globe-making business, which he did, perhaps the first in half a century. Admittedly, Bellerby was not quick to shout about it: “I was six months in and still wouldn’t tell anyone what I was up to, in part out of embarrassment in case it didn’t work out,” he says. “And in part because it just seemed such an odd thing to be doing.”
Furthermore, Bellerby & Co Globemakers’ genesis programme got off to a slow start. For the first 18 months there was almost no demand at all and when orders did come in, each globe was made at a loss, despite prices being from £999 up to £54,000 for a Churchill globe, the biggest made (named after the model commissioned by the British wartime prime minister as a gift for President Roosevelt). But this is small wonder, given the intricacy of the production: each globe has perhaps 48 gauze panels, each of which takes half an hour to apply. They are stuck on and gently stretched while damp, just a few at a time, since while they are drying they still want to move.
“The thing is that there’s no mathematical formula but you’re constantly fighting with pi,” says Bellerby. “Get each panel wrong by one-tenth of a millimetre and by the time you’ve finished you’ve got a centimetre gap somewhere.” But it’s better than the alternative found on cheaper, mass-production globes in which the panels might overlap: “I’ve seen whole cities disappear that way,” he adds. Since there is no training scheme for apprentice planet-shapers, all of Bellerby’s globe-makers have to learn on the job, taking some six months before they get to work on just the smallest globes.
Perhaps it is this attention to craft and detail that has seen Bellerby’s globes become, so to speak, world-leading in their field, even if that has taken seven years rather than the Biblical seven days required to make the Earth (and certainly without his getting the opportunity to rest on the seventh day). “These are aesthetically beautiful objects and although I think our prices are very high, the fact is that hand-crafted objects are very expensive,” says Bellerby.
Certainly that has not stopped even more unusual bespoke commissions coming in: such as the several made for the artist Yinka Shonibare, who uses them in his pieces; one just delivered to a Brazilian company that wanted a globe mounted upside down so that Brazil was more towards the top; as well as commissions that Bellerby diplomatically declines (such as a Middle Eastern company that wanted a globe on which Israel would be missing). As much as Bellerby salutes the “£15 illuminated plastic globes, the kind you find in the geography rooms at school”, clearly his are in another league in all sorts of ways.
Indeed, Bellerby & Co seems to have single-handedly ignited a reappraisal of the globe: a defiantly analogue technology in our furiously digital world. “Digital maps are marvellous if you want to get from A to B. But they don’t make you want to get from A to B,” is how Bellerby sums up the difference. “I think many of our customers buy art for investment purposes without necessarily ‘getting’ the art. But a globe is something everyone understands. There’s a child-like excitement about them. Globes have always been symbols of success and knowledge, and that is no less true today. But quite why everyone has a soft spot for a globe, well, I really don’t know where that comes from. It’s just in us.”