One could say that it must be more destiny than coincidence that less than 10 miles north-west of Greenwich – the globally recognised ‘0’ meridian – and the British Maritime Museum, housing the largest collection of historical globes, exists the most fascinating workshop tucked in a traditional artisanal area of Stoke Newington populated by a handful of skilled and dedicated craftsmen working with the singular and extremely unique task of creating traditional hand-made globes; Bellerby & Co Globemakers.
Behind this remarkable company, the first of its kind in half a century, is Peter Bellerby, who, with a life-long passion for geography, exploration and travel, took this fascination into the realms of, some would say, fantasy, when he decided, after a fruitless search for an aesthetic accurate globe for his father’s upcoming 80th birthday, to make his own!
Since that moment, which could so easily have resulted in a navel-gazing exercise doomed to fail, Peter has succeeded in his quest many times over, and his traditional plaster and resin hand-coloured orbs, from modestly-sized desk globes to vast ornate spheres, grace such iconic venues as Oxford University and the Royal Geographical Society, and have been seen by the world in such suitably magical films like Scorsese’s Hugo.
Peter, after much experimentation, time and investment, is immensely proud of his artisan globe-making workshop, which has a full order-book and plans to open a New York studio-store, and advocates that in this digital world of ‘Google-maps’ and GPS, it is the physical globe you can’t resist reaching out and spinning that both inspires you to travel the world in the first place, as well as grounds you within it…
Here, we gain an insight into Peter’s world as he explains what it feels like to have the whole world in his hands at Bellerby & Co…
Firstly, to those readers that aren’t familiar with Bellerby & Co, please can you explain what you do?
Bellerby and Co are makers of handcrafted terrestrial and celestial world globes. I founded the company following an unsuccessful search for a globe for my father’s 80th birthday.
The company was started in my living room where I figured out how to create globes by trial and error; it took a long time to make one that was perfectly balanced and approximately two years before I produced a globe that I could sell. We created our own cartography with current borders and hand-paint each globe. All the globes are created by hand here in London, and are one-of-a-kind and made-to-order pieces. Customers can choose to dictate the colour of the ocean, land, highlight cities they have been to, or want to go to.
The complete story of who we are, how I started and why is explained in my own words on our website.
Why did you set yourself the challenge of making the perfect and most accurate globe – have you always had an interest in cartography?
As far as my background goes – I was always interested in taking things apart and trying to understand how they worked. I took apart (and probably destroyed) every toy that was ever given to me from a very young age. I was also very interested in geography, preferring to read geography books on subjects like science and nature, volcanoes etc, rather than novels, but whilst it was an interest from a young age, it wasn’t until seven years ago that I ever thought of making a globe.
I had never owned a globe myself, mainly because there were none out there that I liked – the passion really grew immensely in the process of making that first globe for my father who was a Naval Architect. He designed ships but was also on-site at the shipyards overseeing the construction. The longest process was in the yards where he would be stationed for years as the ship progressed (all over Europe when I was a kid). It allowed me to explore a few interesting ships as a child including the cramped confines of a nuclear submarine in Scotland (sadly the commander didn’t answer any of my questions!)
My mother was an ophthalmologist, but she paints with watercolours still, as did her mother. I was not in any way pushed towards art; if I had been I am sure I would have been working in the arts far earlier in life! I think my father expected me to have a “wear a suit and work in the City” sort of job.
I worked at ITV for years; a job which led to me travelling around the world a few times but not being able to really spend a good amount of time anywhere… then I helped a friend open a music venue / bowling alley / bar / restaurant in town. The venue turned out to be very cool which was great because it was totally unplanned. Art had always been in my family but I was also a keen mathematician, photographer and painter.
In 2008 I set out to buy a globe for my fathers fast approaching 80th birthday. Finding out that the only ones available were fragile antiques or aesthetically poor modern versions, I set out with a small timeframe and an even smaller budget to make my own. Surely it couldn’t be that difficult? It took almost two years to make that globe, losing my girlfriend and my car (my DB6) on the way. I had no intention of setting up a company, things just got out of control!
I wouldn’t say being a globe maker is remotely like being a cartographer though, not when you look at the big picture of what we do.
Would you say your globes are a statement against the digital age, given the rise of GPS and Google Maps, for both you and your customers who purchase them?
No of course not; I use Google Maps & GPS everyday. In no way is a globe going to get you where you need to go, but it will inspire you to go there in the first place!
As to why people purchase them…. what are our customers thinking? For some reason craftsmanship lost its way a bit in the latter part of the last century, then with the deluge of cheap imports people have perhaps over-dosed on throw-awayable consumer goods. Perhaps people are getting back to the ways of having fewer items of higher quality that will last them a lifetime and buying things that can be passed down through generations.
I guess that leads onto the questions why should people buy any work of art or beautiful object for their home or why buy something mass-produced that you might throw-away in a few years…? The wonderful thing about our globes is that we make so few of them so over time they will hopefully increase in value and they are rare and unique, you won’t see them in all of your friend’s houses. On a side note, many are personalised – you don’t have to just point out to your friends where you have been on your adventures – we can make you a bespoke globe that illustrates them and charts your journey. We add in small towns, cities and places that might otherwise not be included on a normal globe or map so that they’re really special for our customers…
Where do you find your inspiration for such beautiful pieces of work and who and what have been your creative influences?
We are inspired by the reaction we get from people who purchase our globes. We want to remind people not just of the importance of the world but how limited edition craft still exists.
Peter Barber – the Head of Maps at the British Library, the highest map-related position in the UK – came to our studio and said we were the only current globe maker worth talking about, which was the greatest of compliments.
My favourite customer quote is: “let me again compliment you for really creating something that has the same kind of addictive quality as an Apple product; this thing practically forces me to constantly spin it” E.N, Finland.
We all love what we do and are happy to come to work everyday; I don’t think many people could say that of their jobs and we realise we are very lucky.
Could you provide some insights into the making of your globes?
There is only so much I will ever go in to 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. I spent years of trial and error to get where I am and I hope these skills can be passed down within my family and to the artists I have spent years working with.
The best part… 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 that if you don’t constantly check and re-check, measure and re-measure, you will be unable to complete the process.
Do your craftsmen work as a team on a globe and responsible for a specific aspects of production, such as making gores or the spheres, or is each person responsible for making all aspects of each individual globe?
It is nice that every single globe is one-off and touched by three-four people on that route; using old school methods means each globe ends up being entirely unique. Doing everything in-house means we work with local people and are much more flexible to customers’ wishes.
We are a small team… with just one of us doing all the layers of watercolours full-time. It’s just me and two others making the spheres, prepping the materials, cutting the gores, applying the gores etc… everyone is responsible for specific aspects but there is overlap at times. Of the three of us who make globes, one only knows how to make the Mini Desk Globes… it takes a few more years training to do the larger ones.I, of course, have to do all the less interesting things like the paperwork and accounts side of things and tend to do most of the cartography… so some days are spent behind a computer and a lot of the hands-on work will go to Jon who has been working with me for over three years.
We then have one person working part-time hand engraving the brass meridians and personal messages on the brass arms of the globes. We have wood-turners we work with and a local foundry that hand-cast the metals… and we take turns finishing off the woodwork and metalwork in the studio depending on the day!
Are these the same techniques used by globe-makers from previous generations, or have you embraced new technologies by way of the tools or materials that you use?
We, of course, use many modern methods that did not exist back in the day as computers and printers are very much a modern convenience. Also the early globe-makers used handmade paper which leads to a lot of inaccuracy as it moves around like crazy.
There are definitely many things we are doing the traditional way, but no previous globe-makers left around how-to manuals, so we shall never be able to do a proper comparison…
I think we are a great mix of modern and traditional and more excitingly we have invented our own way of doing things… so the way we make globes is completely original.
What aspects of making the globe is the most difficult?
Applying the map to the sphere – in effect we wet paper and then stretch it, basically fighting the tendency of it to degrade, tear or turn to mush…
It took a long time to make a globe that was good enough to be sold. There were many challenges as there was no manual to follow; everything was done by trial and error. Wetting a cake-shaped piece of paper (gore) then attaching it to a sphere with glue, without ripping it, ripling it, distorting it or damaging it in any way…. this took me 18 months to work out, and even now, with training, takes a new globe-maker up to a year to learn.
Bespoke globe-making had died off many years ago, and the makers, perhaps seeing their place in history (with the knowledge of how difficult the process is) took their secrets to their graves. In fact the reason I am here is probably because there is no-one remaining with the skills – I’m not very good at listening to someone explain how to do something in any case! There was also the challenge that there was no market for hand-made globes at the time we started, so customers were not used to paying this much for a globe. Luckily our customers see our globes now as works of art so when they compare them to paintings on the wall they are very good value!
What skills and qualities do you need to possess to become a successful globe-maker?
Patience and passion for what you are doing.
How do you decide on international borders for your globes, some of which are presumably quite arbitrary?
Any that are disputed we have marked down as such (e.g. Crimea), however there is no international organisation that we follow / or that one is obliged to follow, so whilst we tend to be guided by the UN, we also include countries such as Taiwan. We regularly update the map to take into account things like disputed borders, new countries (South Sudan), and new states (as appeared recently in India). We keep up-to-date with other cartographers and societies. Keep in mind that even on our largest globe most of the place names are the ones that are more fixed in stone (capitols, major city names etc) and changes to those most people would hear about in their day-to-day lives. We are currently and always re-editing the map.
Whilst our globes have thousands of pieces of information on, our largest globe – the Churchill – has a scale of 10 million-to-1, so the level of keeping up-to-date with the cartography is different from a map-maker who might be taking into account every new road, and a lot of smaller changes do not show on a globe of this scale.
With shifting international boundaries, do your customers have the ability to have their globes updated?
I would like to think in a hundred years people will look back at our globes and see them as an accurate reflection of the world during the time in which they were made. Each globe is made-to-order (besides those stocked at Harrods) so they are up-to-date when they are commissioned – and each one-of-a-kind works of art; I don’t think any of our customers would want us coming in with an eraser to make changes.
You provide a range of globes of differing sizes and styles, but do you also create bespoke designs and special commissions, and if so, have you had any interesting requests?
We have met a lot of interesting characters over the years. We have made globes for all sorts of people from Hollywood A listers to students, but we tend to respect their right to anonymous purchasing unless they want to make a song and dance about it (although this hasn’t happened yet!). I suppose one of the interesting things is that many people say they have been searching for decades for a globe, and it is a thrill that we have helped them.
We took part in the Big Egg Hunt in New York City where we made a one-off egg-shaped globe; we were very pleased to see it auctioned at Sotheby’s where it raised $25,000 for two wonderful charities. We were commissioned by Martin Scorsese to make bespoke globes for the movie Hugo…. We very often work with the artist Yinka Shonibare – my favourite piece is “The Globe Head Ballerina”, which is outside the Royal Opera House here in London. Yinka Shonibare also had us make a globe with a bullet hole through it – I suppose you cold say that was pretty interesting.
Other more personal commissions have included hand-drawn illustrations of peoples’ travels, memories, families in the ocean… documenting peoples’ adventures over land and sea… and interesting colour schemes.
We made an “upside down” globe for a client in Brazil as well… we re-positioned and turned all the cartography and weighted the globe so that Brazil is always on top! Of course it isn’t “upside down” though, as who is to say there is any “right side up”!
You took an untrodden path in creating Bellerby and Co. I imagine there have been significant challenges along the way; what advice could you give to anyone thinking of taking a similar path in creating a business that they are passionate about, but yet unproven?
Had I bothered to make a simple budget or plan a strategy I probably wouldn’t have started at all (though I have never really made a budget or plan so that’s nothing new). It didn’t cross my mind that the lack of Globemakers was due to the process being impossibly difficult, along with the quickly learned fact that there was no-one on the planet who could offer any help with working out the process… My advice for people would always be to follow their passions but they have to give it 100% and really believe in themselves.
Finally, how do you foresee the future of Bellerby and Co and its likely evolution?
In 2016 we are hoping to open a shop and studio in New York – one where people can see us making globes through the window and pop their heads in to say hi. There are just a lot of logistics to work out first. We have recently taken on a new member of the team and will spend the whole year training them with hopes that they stay on in the company for the foreseeable future… and designing new products… new bases… hopefully a moon globe too at least! We will likely move on to other relatable products in the near future as well… and hopefully some exciting collaborations. I hope we establish a company that is ongoing which will carry on making globes after I am no longer able to.
Many thanks to Peter Bellerby for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions.