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Globe making is a dying skill, but I'm keeping the tradition going

The Globemakers takes us through the journey of how to build a globe, and includes fascinating vignettes on history, art history, astronomy and physics

Peter Bellerby, the founder of Bellerby & Co, the world's only truly bespoke globe makers

Peter Bellerby. Image: Sebastian Boettcher

Globes have been an ever present in the grand salons, libraries and drawing rooms of Europe’s elite almost from the moment they were conceived, sitting favourably among a room of master paintings. They were entirely handmade at the outset, with the industrial revolution a few hundred years away, so their aesthetic and majesty held up well against a Rembrandt.

The first globes were manuscript globes and consisted of a sphere which was pasted over with paper, with the cartography added painstakingly by hand. Half the world had at this stage not been ‘discovered’ so this process is difficult to correctly complete with modern methods. However the accuracy of these old models, and the undoubted skills of the ship-faring nations’ navigators in plotting coastlines, is quite something to behold. While many rivers often resemble slightly generic snake like squiggles, until well into the 20th century, coastlines were surprisingly accurate.

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Later as the amount of detail increased, Intaglio printing could be used, where an engraved copper plate would be ink filled and put through a mangle-like contraption to produce wonderful images full of character. This allowed many globes to be made from one set of plates. Again accuracy was a struggle, with errors on even the greatest makers’ globes, especially on larger ones where more than one engraver might be used.

A globe being painted

Making or “goring” a globe, the art of stretching a fragile piece of paper over a sphere, when done by hand is probably little changed since the earliest printed globes. The difference today is that we use modern materials, modern paper, acid-free glue, light fast pigments and filtered water. Paper was handmade so had far more flexibility 300 years ago, and to the trained eye imperfections on old globes can be easily spotted.

It takes our apprentice makers one to two years to perfect the art of ‘goring’ our smallest globes, and longer as they learn progressively larger models until they challenge our 50-inch behemoth. The Churchill is one of the largest printed globes ever made and is named after our wartime leader who (along with President Roosevelt) received similar sized ones in 1942 courtesy of the US Army.

In our version, the two-metre long ‘gores’ stretching from pole to pole require two pairs of hands to complete the job. Map makers have always had to contend with border and country name changes, and making globes was hardly a quick process to both learn and perfect in the first place; the most famous makers, such as Coronelli and Blaue, would be constructing their globes across many years, so they needed to avoid years of conflict, else their work would be out of date! Border changes present their own problems to a modern maker but are much easier than having to re-engrave an entire copper plate as would have been necessary in the past. We use digital artwork, so when the king of Swaziland renames the country Eswatini it is a much simpler and quicker process.

In today’s world many countries are also a little precious about those borders. We can’t ship a globe to India without the correct representation of the India/Pakistan border, as the Indian government sees it. Punishment would be six months in jail. We can’t even sell the book The Globemakers in China. Too many likely photos or references to Taiwan. So we end up having slightly different maps for different countries to account for over-zealous border control.

My own journey into globe making was a little strange. I had tried to buy a globe for my father, but couldn’t find anything I liked. At the time I was between jobs and seeing as 2008 was a poor year to get back into property developing decided I would make one myself. I love making things anyway, but have never really had the time.

Pete and Riley in the Bellerbys workshop
Pete and Riley in the Bellerbys workshop. Image: Euan Myles

My partner Jade and I live in a lopsided 1722 Georgian house, and I enjoy doing most of the plumbing, building and electrics myself. In reality I have little choice – our four cats have made it known that they will not tolerate heavy-booted tradesman other than Javier our plumber (I don’t do the gas). So making a simple sphere and putting a map on it didn’t seem like much of a challenge.

Two long years after I made my first plans, and having had to summon reserves of patience that I never knew I had, I finally produced my first globe; I had already decided to set up a company, such had been the expenditure on the project (I didn’t have a budget, but if I had it would involve HS2-style percentage over-runs), so the first one I made was shipped to Brisbane to a delighted librarian, sold for a couple of thousand under cost. I had ultimately focused my time on the creation aspect of the company and had entirely neglected profit. I now have a wonderful team of 25 artists and makers and we ship around 50 globes every month all across the world.

The Globemakers book cover

Peter Bellerby is the founder of Bellerby & Co, the world’s only truly bespoke globe makers. His book, The Globemakers, is out now (Bloomsbury, £25). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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