Peter Bellerby’s initial desires were very simple: he wanted to buy his dad a globe for his 80th birthday. But after scanning the internet and local antique stores, he found nothing of any worth or value. Though globe-making as a tradition dates all the way back to celestial globes in Ancient Greece, the art form has almost died out in modern times, unless you’re after a plastic science class version or a novelty lampshade. So, like any rational human being, Peter Bellerby decided to make one himself.
“It would probably take three, maybe four months and cost a few thousand pounds. After all how difficult can it be to make a ball and put a map on it?” he thought. In the end, it took him over two years of strife, intense learning and god-levels of patience before he could finish what he classed as a perfect globe, and the ordeal left him with enough specialist knowledge and experience to begin his own company.
Now, 9 years later, Bellerby & Co Globemakers has breathed life into a vanishing art form: employing fourteen staff in its London headquarters and supplying unique and durable globes (made from composites and resins) to everyone from Lord Sugar to Martin Scorsese. One of those staff members is 30-year-old Alex, whose job it is to paint the globes. From the offset, it’s a dreamy sounding role: most of his time, he tells me, is spent alone at sea, listening to music on his headphones as he delicately shades in the oceans and defines the coastlines.
Alex grew up in Grimsby and moved to London to study illustration at Middlesex University. After working part time in a shoe shop and then an art shop, he graduated and went on to do the ‘drawing year’ at the Royal Drawing School in Hackney, in which artists are given a year of free studio space and tutoring to help them develop their practice. “It was a hands-on approach rather than digital,” he explains, “I learned a lot there about drawing, painting, and how to use colours and mix paint. These are the skills I’ve been able to incorporate into globemaking.”
The process of creation in Bellerby & Co comes together a bit like this: First, a group of cartographers work on devising and drawing out the maps. These are then printed off and given to the makers, who will cut the map into triangular strips known as gores, measured perfectly so that they will cover the final sphere. The gores are given to the painters who add initial washes of colour, and then they go back to the makers to be stuck onto the spheres. Finally, with the nascent murmurings of what could be a globe beginning to form, the painters close in again to add the details. “Spending your day looking at the earth, you learn so much about geography. I get a lot of pleasure from racing through the coast line of Africa, and I’m always amazed by how big Russia is and how tiny Britain is.”
Intense concentration is a key element of Alex’s work, because the first rule of globemaking is that you cannot make mistakes in globemaking. Tiny 0.1mm errors at the beginning of the process can quickly escalate as the globe develops, and before you know it the Maldives has been obliterated beyond existence. This can be quite a monumental blunder when it’s one of their larger globes (known as the ‘Churchill’, measuring over 1 metre in diameter), which take 6 months to complete.
“When you’re working on everything by hand like this, you are working with extremely fine margins and the consequences are massive,” reasons Alex. “But it’s also one of those jobs where once you’ve zoned in, time can slip past quickly and suddenly you’ve been in the oceans for three or four hours. It’s just a nice way to spend a day.”
As Bellerby & Co becomes the epicentre of the globemaking business, so their commissions become increasingly rare and unique. One customer, Alex tells me, commissioned a globe with their child’s face on (“I think he wanted it somewhere near Australia”). Another time they were commissioned by Royal Ascot to create a themed globe to celebrate the event’s legacy. But their Mona Lisa is yet to be complete: a commission by The Louvre to re-make a celestial globe first commissioned in 1681 by Louis XIV. “I guess the work has just become natural to me now,” says Alex. “You just arrive in the morning and get straight to it.”