A Colossal Interview
Peter Bellerby On Precision, His Love of Disruption, and the Art of Globemaking
December 14, 2020
Managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with Peter Bellerby, who heads Bellerby & Co. Globemakers in London, via email and Zoom in December 2020. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. The image above is by Paul Marc Mitchell. All images © Bellerby & Co. Globemakers, shared with permission
Grace: How has COVID-19 affected your work at Bellerby & Co.?
Peter: We have been incredibly lucky to have been busy all year, but things have not been easy for anyone, of course. We have half our team isolating, which means setting them up with home studios and finding a way to “safely” do the rounds to drop supplies and collect things. It has slowed down the process, but we are getting the hang of it now. We were a very close team, like a family, all working on a big, open-plan studio, so we miss the connection with everyone. It also, of course, affects the process.
We have a few people still working in the studio, spaced and in shifts, and we try and keep connected over Zoom. We have to be ready at any moment for an artist to call in and say they need to isolate for two weeks and deal with the knock-on effect each time we are down a person or two. So far, it has just been due to returns from abroad with changing rules and false calls through friends of friends and roommates testing positive. Our team has, for the most part, kept very well.
We don’t have many suppliers as we do most things in house—just metal workers, for example, who have had to close for times causing delays. We’ve had some setbacks with customers whose projects have been delayed but luckily not many.
We have been affected as far as we exist by word of mouth. We do not do paid advertising or marketing. So having press cancel visits to film or interview was a setback, not being able to do our Instagram as we normally would or have photographers in. Little things. For the most part, we just still feel lucky that orders are keeping us busy, and we have new orders coming in for 2021.
Grace: Your entrance into globemaking began when you wanted a gift for your father’s 80th birthday. I’d like to back up a step, though. Why a globe?
Peter: My father was a very traditional man and gifts had always been socks, books, and nice bottles of gin. His 80th was inspiration to do something more meaningful, and I knew he had always wanted a globe. I had never really researched buying one before and had not realized how poor the quality was out there or how limited the antique options were in terms of pricing and fragility. I thought it would be wonderful for him to have something that was high-quality but also something you could interact with and use to remember past travels and plan future adventures.
My father did not have an iPhone or laptop to jump on Google Maps—he genuinely would be the type to pull out an atlas to see where his grandchildren were talking about. So a modern globe suited the occasion even more. It is something everyone can gather around and use, as well as a lovely visual addition to the home.
Grace: Did you grow up traveling a lot? What’s your connection to cartography?
Peter: I have always loved maps, but I was more inspired by the craft and art of globemaking. Seeing the poor quality of the craftsmanship of what was available, it was more a stubbornness and feeling I might be able to and wanted to do better. Growing up, I always took things apart to see how they would work and enjoyed putting things back together. My father taught me to always be self-sufficient and do things myself—plumbing, electrics, cutting trees, fixing the furniture in the house.
On top of that, he was a ship architect and was stationed around Europe for weeks to months at a time so we often visited him abroad. We did some traveling, but most of my adventures were later in life. Actually, the biggest trip I took was the year before I started the company.
Grace: Before you started this company, what were you doing?
Peter: Immediately prior to this, I had been doing property developing for about ten years. Then I’d also set up a nightclub and bowling alley in central London. I ran that for three years. I actually had never worked behind a bar, and then all of a sudden, I’m managing 45 people. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was very good. We became very fashionable.
Prior to that, I worked at ITV for a number of years, a main commercial television company, licensing their international rights. I did that for seven to eight years, which was a lot of fun. I’ve been really lucky. That was a fantastic job. We’d have to license the television rights internationally for ITV, which is quite difficult. All the rubbish programs that they make in this country, you have to try to find international broadcasters who are crazy enough to want to buy it.
Grace: Do you see any of those experiences from your previous professions showing up in your work now?
Peter: Not really other than an odd fixation with spheres and circles. At ITV, my main responsibility was licensing out the DVD rights. I didn’t mention a crap job I did before that, but it was with some friends who started up a pizza franchise. I went from pizzas to DVDs to bowling balls and records in the venue to wonderful spheres here.
In most of the things I’ve done, I’ve gone in with zero experience. Maybe I’m good at putting myself under pressure and seeing a goal in the future. I love people who, you give them a task, and they say, “yup, okay I’ll go and do that.” That’s the one thing I used to hate as a kid. When my father would give me a job to do, and then try to explain how to do it. The only interesting part of doing this horrible job is trying to work out how I’m going to do it. In all the things I’ve done, I’ve had to find my own feet quite a bit. That for me is fun. I really love change and disruption.
I was looking at something the other day actually online about how everyone was hating the current situation because of all of the change going on. I know this is a ridiculous situation. It’s terrible, and we want it back to normal. But it doesn’t stress me out. It bores me. I think everyone is bored senseless.
Grace: Do you think this love of change and disruption is something that’s natural for you, or is it something that you’ve cultivated?
Peter: I think everyone secretly likes it. Do you want to go to a party that’s arranged four weeks in advance where you do everything, get it really really well organized, or do you want someone to ring you up at 5 or 6, and say, “I’ve got this amazing party. Do you want to come tonight?” Which one’s going to be better? It’s always going to be the spontaneous one.
Grace: Can you walk our readers through the process of creating a single globe?
Peter: Each globe is made bespoke to order so is different in some way, from the coloring to the base to the personalization and nominations of everything in-between.
Firstly, you need to create a perfect sphere, using two half-molds. Next, we edit our map. Since each globe is made to order, we are updating our cartography regularly and personalize depending on our customers’ preferences. We work with each customer to help them design their globe as they’d like it. This can sometimes be a process over months or even years.
Once the map is ready, it is printed and cut up by hand into precise shapes called gores. The gores are painted by hand using watercolors, which give a unique result for each globe. When the gores are dry, they are ready to be attached to the globe, which is called “goring the globe.” That stage is very precise work and very difficult because you’re wetting the paper and stretching it. Wet paper, as you can imagine, is very fragile. The paper wants to rip, ripple, bubble, or tear. If you work with one piece too long, it will naturally degrade.
After the gores are applied, many more layers and detail of watercolor are added, and the globe is sealed with either a gloss or matte finish. The globe is then placed into its base—we make a variety of traditional and modern bases of our own design, which are fully handcrafted and stained to the customer’s preference.
When the globe is complete, it is placed together with the base and engraving. Once we are happy with the final outcome and have thoroughly checked the globe over, it is packaged carefully in either a bespoke “flight case” or a special made crate and shipped off to its new home.
At the moment, we’re doing a lot of one-off bases. This year we’ve had a lot of people who’ve said, “why have you only got these bases? I don’t like any of your bases.” So we end up paying to design a base. I’m always way too generous on time, and we never charge the correct amount. I’m beginning to get a bit more savvy, but it’s also a lot of fun making new bases.
Grace: It seems like that allows even more collaboration from whoever is commissioning.
Peter: Yes. We have an amazing group of people here who help us out. I’m lucky. I have a really good team who love doing new things. I guess a lot of people like experimenting, doing new designs. Life would be boring if you were just repeating the same thing.
Grace: Tell me about the training undertaken by the cartographers you work with and how it differs from other globemakers.
Peter: Our cartographers are just cartographers rather than globemakers. Each globe passes through at least five different sets of differently skilled hands, from the cartographer to the painter to the maker, including an illustrator, an engraver, and a woodworker and metalworker along the way.
Cartographers do have to train with us as our maps are of our own design, and we have a very specific way of how we do things aesthetically and how we work with customers. Expectations are high. Everything needs to be triple-checked and thoughtfully done, while keeping in mind all the restrictions and specifications depending on where we are shipping and sensitivity about certain place names.
Separately, globemakers are skilled artisans, but they can’t come with any previous experience. They will train with us between six months to a year full-time before they make anything a customer will see. It is a long and really hard process. We have no idea —and they have no idea—if they will succeed to the needed quality until they try. You have to train your hands like a muscle and understand paper and movement at a very high level. Have an eye for the most minuscule detail and understand the high standards required.
The training is so long. Mistakes can set us back weeks or even months, so it is so important we find the right people.
Grace: What are some examples of specific skills that they learn?
Peter: I started doing this project and had no idea how long it would take. I just ended up sitting in front of the sphere, which I’d made the day before and pasting the layers of the paper onto the sphere. You can’t really train that. Ultimately, you have to inspire them and give them confidence that they can do it because when you make your first globe after you’ve been here a week, you look at it and think, “oh my god. How am I ever going to do this?” You’ve got rips. It looks horrible. It looks like a child did it with a blindfold.
It’s just a matter of time. Not everyone can do it. You get to a position after about eight months where sadly, you either are going to get there or not. There’s nothing we can do. It’s a mixture of being bloody-minded, consistent, and not giving up. I would love to say I’m standing over them and really helping them out from day to day, but I’m a terrible teacher, and it wouldn’t work like that. It just wouldn’t. You’ve got to just focus.
When people do an apprenticeship here, it’s not like they make the tea and do this rubbish job. It’s making a globe every single day. It’s practicing the art of making a globe every day. The more you do it, the better you get.
You can’t just say, “this is what it is, and by using this math formula, that’s how you solve the equation.” You don’t solve the equation by using math. You solve it by your artistic ability.—Peter Bellerby
Grace: How much math is involved?
Peter: If you do something wrong, Pi will rear its head. Imagine the 180-degree circle that’s going around the globe right at the top below the north pole. If for some reason, you allow that to drop by a millimeter below where it should be, your circumference is 3.14159 millimeters bigger. You will have paper not meeting up. You do have to be really, really accurate the whole time. We’re constantly measuring and re-measuring to make sure we’re doing things the correct way and that the measurements are all right. But it does go wrong.
It’s an art. It’s not a science. While what we’re doing is incredibly accurate and some of the best globes I would hope to imagine have been made in hundreds of years, it’s still an art. You can’t just say, “this is what it is, and by using this math formula, that’s how you solve the equation.” You don’t solve the equation by using math. You solve it by your artistic ability.
It requires constant measuring. The level of concentration here is incredible. When someone is making a globe, you could be behind them shouting, “Fire! Fire!” and they’d just be making their globe. I wish I concentrated this hard in school.
Grace: That process feels very special in comparison to how many things are made today.
Peter: It’s just so rare that you have anything you’ve commissioned from scratch. Even when you get clothes made, they do fit you perfectly, but they tend to follow the same form. Whereas with a globe, we’re adding on personalizations. We’re adding on people’s towns and cities. We’re adding on things that really make it special for them. For me, that’s the most important thing
I like that. That’s the problem. Now I want to go out all the time and find products that I can design from the beginning.
Grace: What are some of the more interesting aspects of the globe’s history?
Peter: Globes have been made since the 1400s like this. That was when the printing press was invented. The gores were hand-etched onto copper gores, run through the printing press, then wet and stretched across spheres much like our process now.
People ask why you need a globe sometimes. Google Earth and Google Maps and globes have no overlap to me in what they are or how they are used. Google Earth is to get from A to B, something on your phone or computer. It will never inspire you or be an object of beauty. You would not use a globe to find a shop down the street, of course. A globe will inspire you to look up a place in more detail. It’s something handmade and hand-painted—one of a kind that you can pass down to future generations.
Grace: How do you understand the role of the globe as a narrative object? I’m thinking in terms of the ways maps historically have told very specific stories about colonialism, imperialism, and various forms of oppression and supremacy. The specific names that different countries or regions recognize play a role here, too. How do you understand your role as a globemaker in sharing those stories?
Peter: It is so complicated as there are so many disputed territories and borders around the world. I can go to jail in India if I mark a border wrong. We had a customer in Lebanon who wanted to commission a globe, and we could not ship there as they won’t allow globes or maps in the country with Israel. We will never and would never remove a country name. Things like that are disheartening to know and hear. We have to do what is right and correct for currently recognized places as they are seen in the UK/EU/UN at the moment. We mark disputed borders as disputed. We cannot change or re-write history.
The great thing about each globe being made bespoke is that we can still tell stories on the globes. We can mark a historic name on a map, like a town that existed before WWII or the Native American name for a place alongside its current one.
Looking at antique globes tells so much about colonialism and imperialism and are great learning tools. We shared photos on Instagram of an antique globe we found, and there was so much feedback—good and angry. People were telling us we were sharing false information. Threats were coming from us showing the globe that had Kurdistan labeled, for example. And this is a globe we did not make. We have all learned so much through the process of sharing on social media and connecting to people around the world about the emotion attached to places and place names.
A globe will and has always been a moment of history in time, which is why we also put on a bit of historical information as well. We put on things like world leaders, demographics, economic information. You can date most globes within one or two years of them having been made. The world is always changing. This is the point at which the world was as it was at that time. I think the revolution we’re having at the moment in technology is amazing, but we still need to remain slightly grounded.
It’s such an important tool. When you’re listening to the radio about all the things going on in the world and you have a globe in front of you, you focus on that area. You can kind of do the same with a map on the wall, but you wouldn’t use Google Maps to scroll to North Korea or Japan. Whereas on a globe, it’s there instantly.
I’ve always just loved the whole notion of seeing where you come from. I was listening to A Brief History of Time the other day, the Stephen Hawking book. I got into quarks and protons and neutrons, and I was like okay, I need to slow down and do this over a longer period. But it’s lovely imagining the world completely. It’s so difficult to get your head around why it all happened. Why is it all there? It’s wonderful having this little globe in your room, which represents where you live amongst this galaxy of galaxies.
When we look at a flat map, as an English person, we always see England smack bang in the center. The world is a spherical object. There is no center.—Peter Bellerby
Grace: Especially on a round object. It is a different perspective from a flat map.
Peter: Yeah, and when we look at a flat map, as an English person, we always see England smack bang in the center. The world is a spherical object. There is no center.
Any world map that is on the wall is essentially a distortion. It has to be to get there. Unless you’re replicating a globe by gores on the wall, it’ll always be distorted. Distances between things will be incorrect. You can get endless discussions with a globe. It honestly will prompt you. It’s so often that you reference it and something that’s going on in the world. You don’t realize that you do but you do.
Grace: What are you working on currently?
Peter: We really are focusing on one-off bespoke designs. The whole way the company has gone from the start has been driven by customers. I started making traditional little stands—I had a shop at the beginning, and everyone coming into the shop would be saying, “let me know when you’re going to be doing a contemporary version.” A lot of the designs we have are actually named after customers. That’s why some of them have names of great physicists and scientists, and others have slightly random names.
We were planning on having an exhibition in New York in June. We were going to introduce quite a few new models, but that’s been put back until when we can possibly do it. We will be launching a 2021 new collection, which will be 10-15 new bases. That will be in April or May.
Explore Bellerby & Co.’s globes on its site and Instagram.