Bellerby & Co: the craft of hand-made globes

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Art in the round

The craft of creating exquisite, hand-made globes has been rediscovered and is flourishing in the unexpected precincts of a north London workshop

Y ou might be forgiven for thinking that the demand for hand-made globes would have come to the end around the time Queen Victoria died.

But you’d be wrong. Behind a nondescript door, in a light, airy workshop in north London’s nowadays rather fashionable Stoke Newington district, a group of artists and craftspeople are focused on making globes that are not only objects of intricate beauty, but also individually unique.

The company’s founder, Peter Bellerby, says his interest in globe-making began as little more than a slightly unconventional hobby. ‘I’d given my father the usual socks, ties and books as birthday presents for the whole of my adult life, but his 80th birthday was approaching and I wanted to find him something special. In particular, I wanted to buy him a really nice globe.’

What he found, however, were either fragile and expensive antiques or underwhelming, mass-produced globes, many of which had an unjustifiably high price tag.

‘I was surprised nobody was making high-quality globes. The craftsmanship really had been lost over the past few generations. I somewhat naïvely thought I could make one myself in a few months, after all how hard could it really be?’

Harder than it looked, is the answer to that question and Bellerby senior didn’t get his globe until way after his 80th birthday, by which time his son had sold a house, a car (‘a beautiful 1967 Aston Martin’) and thrown away about 200 failed attempted globes.

‘It took me two years to complete my first globe to the standards I wanted.’

‘I now realised what a challenge it is and that, unless you are somewhat obsessive and unwilling to compromise, the end result may not be up to scratch. ‘It took me two years to complete my first globe to the standards I wanted. Success was not quick or easy and the process still proves to be complicated to this day as we are still a young company.’

Youthful the firm may be, but it uses methods that are inspired by ideas that go back centuries, albeit gingered up with a few modern touches.

‘The process still relies on training your hands to manipulate wet paper perfectly on a sphere before it naturally tears or turns into papier-mâché,’ says Bellerby. ‘The great globe-makers of the past etched copper plates (in reverse) and then ran those copper plates though a mangle-style printing press. We use computers and printers because that allows us to keep our maps up to date and to personalise each to make them entirely one-off. Also etching copper plates would be taking it a little too far! In addition, we use much more modern and thus resilient materials.’

'We use computers and printers because that allows us to keep our maps up to date and to personalise each to make them entirely one-off'

This mix of ancient and modern is creating a whole new market among lovers of the rare and beautiful. ‘Our globes are works of art,’ says Bellerby. ‘It’s rare nowadays to be able to commission something bespoke that will truly be one of a kind. Each globe we make passes through five sets of hands before it reaches the customer’s home.

‘From choosing the wood for their base, to having a say in bespoke cartography edits and choosing the colours and style of shading for the land and sea… We don’t limit our customers in any way.

‘In the end they receive something that has had a huge amount of time and effort put in to make it truly beautiful. Our globes are heirloom quality, made with the best materials. And anything we don’t do in-house is sourced locally.’

Bellerby adds that he knows all his customers (and their globes) by name. ‘We’ll only ever make so many of each, so they are part of a very limited edition. If there’s the smallest question about how something looks visually then the globe is recycled and we start again.’

That attention to detail is rare, he says. ‘This craft is truly hard. Other globes these days tend to be of such poor quality. You’ll see overlapping segments causing whole islands to disappear, while tears and bubbles are both pretty common.’

As might be expected Bellerby is no stranger to complicated and eccentric requests. ‘A customer recently wanted a leg of lamb wrapped in tin foil to be illustrated on a globe he was commissioning for his father. That was a surprise in itself, but it also took five tries to get the exact angle of the meat as he imagined it!

‘A customer recently wanted a leg of lamb in tin foil to be illustrated on a globe.’

‘Every globe we do has its own sets of challenges and almost every customer that requests personalisation has some unusual demands. We all have such different memories and life experiences. A globe can be the best place to illustrate that and add things of special meaning.’

He recalls, for example, making a globe base that could safely be anchored to a yacht. ‘It was for the Elephant Family, a charity for which I am an ambassador. We made an egg-shaped globe that spun within a similarly shaped brass meridian. It was then auctioned off at Sotheby’s.’

The company will also match a wooden base to the style of a customer’s home relying just on photos, which can create its own challenges. ‘Right now we’re making an aluminium base for our 127cm Churchill globe,’ explains Bellerby. ‘It’s being machined from one tonne of raw metal.’

So does he have any personal favourites? ‘Recently we made a Moby Dick globe,’ he says. ‘It was just 23cm, the smallest we do, but the whole story was illustrated with travel routes, favourite passages illustrated in detail and favourite quotes hand-written in calligraphy.

‘The client chose tropical aquamarine oceans and it came together so perfectly. It was really special and the globe will always be completely one of a kind from every angle. Our in-house illustrator draws each request by hand and our painters add touches of colour with a tiny paintbrush, so I don’t know exactly how anything will look until it’s complete. It’s always a pleasure to see everything come together and study it in detail.’

Words: DH

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2017

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