After years as little-used antiques hidden in dusty libraries, Bellerby & Co is putting handcrafted globes back on the map. Katy Birchall talks to the man with the whole world in his hands.
As with so many great stories, Peter Bellerby’s started in a pub. ‘I was talking the idea through with some friends and I only meant to make one, perhaps two globes, but it got out of control,’ the founder of Bellerby & Co Globemakers explains with a smile.
It was a chance idea that has become a global – excuse the pun – success. Bellerby & Co was born when Mr Bellerby tried to track down a globe to give to his father as an 80th-birthday
present and discovered how few options there were. ‘I could only find modern school globes or old, outdated ones at auctions, so I decided to try to make one myself.’
Mistakenly thinking it would take only a couple of months, eventually, having ‘made little progress and spent a lot of money’, he decided he ought to give up or form a company. He now heads up a 15-strong team producing hundreds of bespoke, handcrafted globes each year.
‘I think we have one on every continent,’ he says proudly. ‘About four years ago, I sent one to the British Antarctic Survey and I’m hoping it didn’t just keep it in its office.’
With no experience in manufacturing or selling a product, at first, Bellerby & Co was all about trial and error. Mr Bellerby believes he made a globe a day for a year as he attempted to perfect the craft, which was a frustrating process, but not without its perks. ‘I had an old Mercedes estate that I’d load up, then drive to the local dump and launch all those practice globes about 10ft down into the skips, in the hope they would smash everywhere,’ he grins.
Based in a tranquil studio in Stoke Newington, London N16, Mr Bellerby’s team uses a combination of traditional and modern techniques to handcraft each model, from the sleek, functional stands to the intricately detailed paintwork of the map, using only the best tools and products available. ‘You just can’t take shortcuts in this work, otherwise you get stung badly,’ he insists.
Depending on the size, a globe can take between five weeks and six months to make. They vary from miniature desk globes, that are about 9in in diameter, to the breathtaking, 50in Churchill.
This magnificent piece was introduced to the Bellerby collection in 2012, modelled on the two globes Sir Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt were presented with during the Second World War as a sign of friendship at a particularly difficult time.
Globe-making is a painstaking, complicated process and Mr Bellerby is a perfectionist – nothing leaves the building unless it’s of the highest quality, which is evidenced by the number of seemingly flawless pieces dotted around the studio that actually have tiny, almost imperceptible imperfections. Even the smallest smudge, crease or overlap renders the globe useless and requires the team to start the process all over again. One such example, which he completed, after weeks of work, just before last Christmas, currently sits in Mr Bellerby’s office. ‘I got a bit of glue on it, but didn’t realise until I’d finished,’ he admits with a sigh.
The spheres themselves are made of resin, plaster of Paris or glass-reinforced plastic and arrive as separate halves before they’re joined together and balanced (‘I can’t tell you how – it’s a secret,’ Mr Bellerby insists). Then, the all-important map is created. Using contemporary, updated cartography, each one is embellished and tailored to the client, often featuring sentimental artwork or village names. Once the map has been printed, it’s cut into ‘gores’ – the triangular shapes that are carefully stretched into place across the sphere while wet.
Applying and aligning these exceedingly fragile segments without tearing or rippling them is the most difficult task of the entire operation and can take a newcomer at least six months to perfect. ‘Putting on that final gore is the best part of it all, when you finally transform a sphere into a globe,’ enthuses Mr Bellerby.
The globe is then hand-painted with eye-watering precision, highlighting the fine details and illustrations and creating a wonderful shading effect, bringing it all to life before the final layers of varnish are applied.
It may be a challenging job – ‘if only I’d concentrated this hard at school,’ Mr Bellerby reflects – but the exquisite nature of the finished product surely makes it a rewarding one. The light, spacious studio has a calm and focused atmosphere, with weekly yoga sessions to aid thoughtfulness, accuracy and posture as some of the globemakers are on their feet for most of the day. Their employer is keen to stress that the makers don’t necessarily need to be artistic: ‘Stubbornness is the important thing: an ability to do something, get knocked back constantly, but keep on going.’
The ability to persist when events conspire against the company has served it well on several occasions, such as the time when the first globe Mr Bellerby sent to the USA was smashed to pieces with a hammer by customs when the lead weights inside it were detected. Fortunately, the two long months it took to remake that globe from scratch didn’t put its creator off international shipments and he now has a large customer base of devoted private clients abroad as well as at home. One customer in Spain was so pained when his globe wouldn’t fit through the doors of his office that he knocked the wall down to get it in.
As well as featuring in a number of BBC and ITV productions, Bellerby globes have also made it to Hollywood. Martin Scorsese commissioned several for his magical 2011 film Hugo and the Bellerby & Co website proudly displays the Evening Standard photoshoot of Kevin Spacey using one as a rather magnificent foot rest (‘not recommended’, the website dryly advises).
There is no question that this revived craft is a labour of love and every globe produced by Bellerby & Co is, in itself, a work of art. ‘Because everything is done by hand, no two globes are the same,’ Mr Bellerby concludes. ‘Each is one of a kind.’ Would he ever make things easier for himself and concede to quantity over quality? Having stepped into his workshop, I already know the answer—not for the world.
Bellerby & Co Globemakers, 7, Bouverie Mews, London N16 (020–8800 7235; www.bellerbyandco.com)
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