Behind the scenes at London’s globe-making workshop – a photo essay

Not many people get to step inside the workshop of Bellerby and Co. Inside a warehouse in north London, it’s home to one of the world’s only makers of artisan globes. Spheres of various sizes dot the room, freshly painted maps hang on lines across the rafters and, sat at desks shaded by tropical plants, a small group works quietly on different stages of the bespoke pieces. The atmosphere, understandably, is of intense concentration.

It seems like the kind of business that should have been around for centuries: a trade passed down through generations. In fact, it was founded just a decade ago, unintentionally, when Peter Bellerby decided to make his father a globe for an 80th birthday present – and things spun out of control.

“The plan was to make two, one for him and one for me,” says Peter. “I thought it would take a few months. It took two years. The birthday present was late … so late.”

In order to make the globe for his father, Peter had to learn the delicate techniques involved, now used by the company. “The beauty of it was there was no one out there who could tell me how to do it; I didn’t know what paper or glue to use and why things were going wrong.”

After spending two years learning how to make them, Peter founded the company. In his first year he just had three orders. In 2010-11 this increased to 12. This year the company will make up to 650, with the smallest taking three weeks and the biggest six months or more.

Making a globe involves a mix of complicated calculations and physical technique. A map needs to be morphed to fit on ‘gores’: the peel-like slices that fit onto a sphere

Though most of the globes are for private clients – I’m told they range from students to Hollywood actors to wealthy industrialists – Bellerby and Co also works with institutions. It is currently involved in a project for the Louvre, making a celestial globe featuring 88 constellations, using original copper plates that haven’t been used for more than a century; it will be completed by 2019.

With the degree of specialist labour involved – Peter likens each to a “work of art” – the globes don’t come cheap. The smallest desk globes start at £1,200, the biggest £79,000, with options for endless personalisations.

Peter shows me one, made for a member of the House of Lords, which features their crest on it. Another, made for a customer who was flying to Antarctica, insisted they include an airstrip where he was planning to land. They commonly edit the globe to include all the places they’ve been too. “It means little towns and villages that might never make it on a globe get to be there,” says Peter.

The scale of some of the globes means that one of the first things the company asks the customer is: can you fit it in your house? For some this isn’t a deterrent. “One Spanish client knocked walls down around his office then rebuilt them,” says Peter. “And, he actually knew he’d have to do this in advance.”

Making a globe involves a mix of complicated calculations and physical technique. A map needs to be morphed to fit on “gores”: the peel-like slices that fit onto a sphere. A perfect sphere also needs to be made. Peter uses Formula One fabricators to make the moulds, as even a small margin of error would mean gaps between the pieces of map. Sticking the gores onto the sphere requires a master touch – the paper needs to be carefully stretched onto it by hand, and can easily split.

Bellerby and Co currently has around 20 people working for them. Apprentices go through a six-month training process just to learn how to make the smallest size globe. Each new size of globe requires another three months or so of training, because the process of weighting and stretching the paper is different each time. The only way to learn is through repetition.

The company receive hundreds of applications for apprenticeships and looks for people with an artistic streak, as well as a portfolio of making and designing objects. Asked what he feels made him suitable for the job, one apprentice, Leo, simply says: “A good eye”.

For Peter, part of the appeal of globes lies in the way they can interact with your daily life. “From planning a holiday to just talking about the world and how we abuse it … it reminds us of both of the size of the planet and its fragility.”

As for what Peter’s favourite part of the production process is? “Putting on the last gore,” he says. “You can breath a sigh of relief and give it to the painters. Until then it’s just some bits of map on a sphere.”

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