On Bouverie Road, Stoke Newington, London, a group of 20 globemakers wet and stretch paper across a sphere in the same way it was done since the 1400’s. Step inside Bellerby and Co. and the traditional craft of globe-making comes to life. Inside the studio are globemakers who make the bases by hand, with metal bases hand cast using the lost-wax method, the engraver, hand engraving using the traditional tools, and each globe being hand painted.
Growing up we saw the sphere resting in classrooms and libraries, or at home as an object to ornate our writing desks with, or at times being received as a present. Earlier, with no GPS or smartphones handing out speedy information, the best resource to locate our spot on the globe was to point out on the sphere itself.
Go back in time to the 15th century when Martin Behaim, a German geographer, made a terrestrial globe, the Erdapfel or the earth apple, in his hometown of Nuremberg.
Fast-forward a few years and it was the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. It was then that in the drawing rooms of the elite, celestial and terrestrial globes were kept as a sign to show how informed the residents were. From helping militarily, administratively, politically and economically, maps have been shaping and reshaping history.
From Claudius Ptolemy's world map, which presented a latitude and longitude system, to advances in map-making by Al-Idrisi's Tabula Rogeriana, a detailed map that included socio-economic features and cultural groups of each area that was mapped, to the Hereford Mappa Mundi, the largest medieval map still in existence, to one of cartography's artistic pieces, the Fra Mauro map of the 15th century, maps are constant reminders of new boundaries being demarcated while old ones being removed.
With technology's buzz having loomed over the past few decades, maps have taken a backseat; for one click on the illuminated screen and you have your destination in front of you.
In the midst of the high-tech space, one man was looking for a globe for his father's 80th birthday. "The company started as a hobby more than anything. Peter Bellerby thought he could take a few months and teach himself to make a globe as a gift for his father," shares Jade Fenster, who is Peter's partner since the past nine years and helps him run the company.
Faced with setbacks in the fledgling two years, "Peter overcame the initial two years of teaching himself how to make a globe. He always said that had the idea started with a business plan, i.e. had he thought it through from the start, done the figures or any proper research on what a difficult craft it is, indeed any production process from drawing to completion, the company would not exist today," Fenster talks about what started in the living room has now grown into a company of 20 people.
If not a globemaker, Peter would have been an architect perhaps, shares Fenster, "but he has always preferred doing roles that are self-taught so I am not sure he would have made it through schooling," he adds.
Between a few weeks to a few months is what it takes to make one globe depending on the size and level of personalisation. "We work on multiple globes at once since each requires drying and resting time between stages," Fenster elaborates. Being traditional artisans, Fenster explains the process behind bespoke globes.
"Firstly, we create a perfect sphere, using two half-moulds. Peter's first globes were made using plaster of Paris but for the larger globes we now use modern composites, and the smaller ones are made from resin.
"Next, we edit our map, since each globe is made to order, we are updating our cartography regularly and personalise depending on our customers preferences. Once the map is ready, it is printed and cut into precise oval shapes, called gores. The gores are painted by hand using watercolours, which give a unique result for each globe. When the gores are dry, they are ready to be attached to the globe, which is called ‘goring the globe’. That stage is very precise work and very difficult because you’re wetting the paper and stretching it – wet paper as you can imagine is very fragile. The paper wants to rip, ripple, bubble or tear naturally. If you work with one piece too long it turns to paper mache. After the gores are applied, many more layers and detail of watercolour are added and the globe is sealed with either a gloss or matte finish. The globe is then placed into its base; we make a variety of traditional and modern bases of our own design," and there is only this much Fenster goes into detail about, "half because it is boring (sitting in front of a computer for days, weeks, months until you are happy with something); it is not a process that is entirely marked out and planned," he reveals.
The best part the team feels is putting on the last gore. "It is an immense feeling of pride and you can stand back and admire what has taken so long to complete. One of the challenges in globe-making is the fight with Pi, which means if you don't constantly check and re-check, measure and re-measure than you will be unable to complete the process."
With every single globe a one-off and made using old-school methods, each piece is at least worked on by five people on the completion route. As for different fonts used on each globe, Fenster points out, "The one on our first globe the 50cm, Britannia was made special for us." All those who have in mind their durability, Fenster elucidates, "We’ve thrown them on the floor and in the ocean and they have held up great, but we don’t recommend either of course. Each globe is sealed with resin; they are made to be touched and spun, but they are also works of art and should be treated as such to ensure they last many generations as an heirloom quality item."
A personal favourite creation of Peter Bellerby, is the 'Egg Globe'. "It was a special hand-engraved egg shaped meridian in which it could be spun, just like a traditional globe. We made it for charity as part of the Big Egg Hunt – it was a huge challenge and was auctioned at Sotheby’s New York for $25,000," Fenster says. But amongst Bellerby's collection that includes the Albion, Livingstone, Galileo, Britannia, another in the league is the Churchill, which is the largest in the collection. "Every 127cm diameter Churchill we make is a challenge, taking between six months to a year to complete. We can only make one a year, so we know there will only ever be a maximum of 40 out there in the world by the time Peter retires," Fenster says, adding "we, as a company will only ever make a few thousand globes. We will never grow too big that we don’t know each globe by the customer's name and we will never speed up the process."