Personal Luxuries

The whole world in his hands

One man is resurrecting the ancient art of globemaking with stunning results. Simon de Burton meets the spin doctor.

June 12 2011
Simon de Burton

It’s fair to say that in this age of GPS and Google Maps, terrestrial globes are no longer regarded as essential navigational tools – but they still have a place in the world. Travel supplier Stanfords offers several, from the beach-ball type to a reproduction antique, and I myself have a kitsch illuminated one. Only last week, its light bulb came loose, causing a minor incendiary incident in the South Pacific.

But when Peter Bellerby tried to buy a modern globe crafted in the old-fashioned way, with a handmade, hand-coloured sphere and meticulous attention to detail, people thought he was demanding the earth.

“Back in 2007 I was searching for a globe as an 80th-birthday present for my father, a naval architect,” explains Bellerby. “All I could find were replicas of old ones, school globes with vivid blue oceans or 18th-century antiques on which Africa was an unexplored region. So the choice was either visually unappealing, of inferior quality, geographically inaccurate – or often a combination of all three.” Not to be defeated, the versatile Bellerby (whose career path has included selling television video rights, developing property and running a bar and bowling alley) decided to make a globe to his own, exacting specifications.

“My plan was to make two, one of which I would keep,” says Bellerby, “but I quickly realised why there were no traditional globe makers left: the production cost is astronomical, the process fraught with pitfalls and the skill expensive to learn and by no means logical. The goring alone [applying the triangular map to the sphere] took me 18 months to perfect.”

But perfect it he did, and his global passion developed after passers-by, who had spotted him learning the ropes through the window of his workshop in north London, became intrigued by what he was doing. Bellerby decided it could be a viable business and leased a shop; he subsequently sold his first globe in May last year and now has six months’ worth of orders.

The process of making a Bellerby globe is as protracted as it is complex. First, the sphere is cast in half moulds using plaster of Paris and backed with hessian. The casts emerge with rough edges, which have to be smoothed before the two halves are carefully joined. Then the sphere is balanced, so that when it is revolved it always comes to rest naturally.

Next, the map is applied in either 24 segments for a small, 20cm-diameter globe or 48 segments for the especially impressive 50cm models, a process that takes an entire day. After this, artist Meredith Owen painstakingly hand-colours the map, which can take anything from two days to several weeks, depending on the size and the layers of paint required. Along the way, the ends of the globe must be reinforced with wood and hessian before being fitted with nylon bearings that enable the finished article to be mounted on a wooden stand hand-crafted from reclaimed oak and tulipwood.

The original model, the 50cm-diameter Britannia, costs £2,390, while the Perano costs £3,490, or £6,280 if bought as a pair along with the celestial version. Already, Bellerby’s globes have found homes at Oxford University and the Royal Geographical Society, and legendary film director Martin Scorsese features four of them in his 3-D movie The Invention of Hugo Cabret. In addition, the British-Nigerian contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare has become one of Bellerby’s most enthusiastic clients, ordering 11 globes in total.

Such is Bellerby’s confidence in his craft that he has now decided to create a limited-edition globe measuring 127cm (50in) in diameter. Called the Churchill, it has been inspired by a pair of globes presented in 1942 as Christmas gifts to Britain’s wartime prime minister and President Franklin D Roosevelt by George Marshall, then the US Army chief of staff.

The originals currently reside respectively at Churchill’s former home, Chartwell in Kent, and in the Roosevelt Presidential Library near Poughkeepsie in New York state. Bellerby plans to make a series of 40 Churchill globes loosely based on them, the first 10 of which will have a starting price of £25,000 each.

“The original globes were clearly made in a bit of a rush, as they are not especially detailed, but they must have played a remarkable role in 20th-century history,” says Bellerby. “It’s easy to imagine the two great leaders talking to one another by telephone as they planned strategies while looking at matching globes in their respective command centres.”

Unlike the standard globe, the Churchill model will sit on a bespoke circular base that will be hand-formed by engineers who usually spend their time creating body panels for historic Aston Martin cars. Of the three Churchill globes ordered, one is being made for a collector of “warbird” aircraft, who has specified a base designed along the lines of an aeroplane air intake. The massive, 127cm diameter of the globe will allow it to carry a huge amount of demographic and political information, and the circular base, which will be fitted with a series of multidirectional bearings, means that the majority of the sphere will remain visible at all times (unlike a conventional globe, which usually has several areas obscured by its wooden stand).

Of course, a Churchill globe wouldn’t be of much use to Barack Obama or David Cameron in dealing with today’s international conflicts. But if you subscribe to the notion that a luxury object is something that one can perfectly well live without, then Bellerby’s products will surely be within your sphere of understanding. Just tap “51 Kynaston Road, London N16 0EB” into your car’s sat-nav and it should take you straight to his studio…