Dan Hayes reports on Bellerby & Co, which has singlehandedly resurrected the handmade globe industry in East London.
A quiet backstreet in East London is perhaps not the obvious place one might expect to find a company that has created a successful international manufacturing business from a long lost art form.
Inside Bellerby & Co’s light-infused premises, strips of drying paper hang from the ceiling, paintbrushes wait their turn in ragged rows and artists carefully weave their magic as spring sunshine streams in through ceiling-housed windows.
If you ignore the electric cables, Apple Macs and very contemporary appearance of the workforce you could think you were looking at a scene from the era of Captain Cook or Admiral Nelson.
A really nice globe
The company owes its existence to founder Peter Bellerby’s quest for a unique gift. ‘I’d given my father the usual socks, ties and books as birthday presents for the whole of my adult life,’ he recalls, ‘but his 80th birthday was approaching and I wanted to find something special. In particular, I wanted to buy him a really nice globe.’
What Bellerby found, however, was an unexpected gap in the market. His options were either fragile antiques or uninspiring, mass-produced alternatives. The ability to manufacture top-quality globes had seemingly sunk without trace at some point in the 20th century.
Even though his own forays into hands-on creativity had at this point been limited to a lengthy spell at ITV, doing up a few houses and some amateur violin restoration, Bellerby decided to have a crack at making a globe himself.
After all, he reasoned, how hard could it be? The answer to that question, as it turned out, was: ‘extremely’.
Indeed. it took almost two years for Bellerby junior to perfect the process, in which time he sold his house, his car (‘a beautiful 1967 Aston Martin’) and saw more than 200 failed attempts go into the bin.
Ten years on, though, business is buoyant; the firm employs 20 people and the order book is full – the actual manufacturing process, however, remains intricate and complicated.
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Patience and skill
Bellerby explains: ‘You need to create a perfect sphere, using two half-moulds. My first globes were made using plaster of Paris, but for the larger globes we now use modern composites and the smaller onesare made from solid, weighted resin.’
The next stage involves editing the map itself. “Since each globe is made to order we are updating our cartography regularly and personalise depending on our customers’ preferences,” he adds.
Once the map is ready, it is printed and cut up by hand into precise shapes called ‘gores’, which are hand-painted using watercolours. When the gores are dry, they are attached to the globe, a process known as ‘goring the globe’.
“It’s very precise work,” says Bellerby. “It’s also very difficult because you’re wetting the paper and stretching it. Wet paper, as you can imagine, is very fragile.
“It wants to rip, ripple, bubble or tear naturally. If you work with one piece too long it will naturally degrade. After the gores are applied many more layers and detail of watercolour are added and the globe is sealed with either a gloss or matte finish.”
In terms of tools and techniques, this can appear a pretty low-tech business with hands, water and glue crucial to success.
Ancient and modern
There are some concessions to the modern world, however, as Bellerby explains. “Going back to the 15th century, a map would have been etched on to a copper plate and run through a printing press to produce the gores. Now we use modern printers and we have better quality inks, better paper and more efficient ways to seal the globe so it can be touched and spun without falling apart.
“The manufacturing techniques are all learned,” he adds. “People don’t come into the job with the skills needed, so it helps to be a creative and patient person who loves working with their hands.”
Processes are methodical and the speed of progress is far removed from the norms of the digital age. The globes require drying and resting time between stages so team members have to be able to multi-task, while remaining calm if things don’t go quite according to plan.
Training and skills
“The team is quite close and people don’t want to set anyone else back,” Bellerby says. “For example, if the globemaker makes a big mistake it can add a new job for the painter and if the painter makes a blunder it can mean remaking the whole globe.
“It’s important everyone plans their own day and, as cheesy as it sounds, they need to put their heart into everythin they do.”
There is no such thing as a typical day in the bespoke globe business, he adds. “We have many varied roles in the studio and each globe passes through about five sets of hands. We have a senior globemaker, who has been with the firm for more than five years. Like everyone else, he started as an apprentice and he now only works on the very large globes with me.
“In the case of our 127cm-diameter Churchill, he and I both have to place each gore on together which is like a choreographed dance; it relies on us both being extremely careful and precise and knowing exactly what we are doing.”
In addition, the firm also has two other globe-makers, both with more than two years’ experience and each specialising in a particular style of desktop-sized globe.
Recruitment and apprenticeships
There are also two apprentices who have just finished a six-month training stint. “We get around 100 CVs every time we advertise,” explains Bellerby. “This time, we spent about four months interviewing and ended up finding two people who really impressed us.
“They’ve essentially spent six months practising – throwing their work away at the end of the day for all that time. It takes a very passionate, stubborn and patient person to do that.”
And those qualities are in addition to artistic flair, an extreme eye for detail, nimble fingers and plenty of patience.
Bellerby adds: “Our artists tend to come from art and design school backgrounds, but everyone has to go through a lengthy training process; so someone self-taught, who has always been a keen maker in their free time, is just as likely to excel in the role if they are passionate about it.”
Other members of the team include two cartographers, dedicated to making sure the maps are up-to-date and in keeping with clients’ wishes.
Says Bellerby: “Each globe is bespoke or made to order, each customer has personal requests and edits they want added to their maps. For example, our cartographers will plot travel routes and figure out how to place small illustrations while not losing too many city names in the process.”
In addition, there is an illustrator – “From shipwrecks to family portraits she’s done it all”. An engraver – “She looks like something out of the 1400s in the way she works and the tools she uses”. And woodworkers create the globes’ gleaming bases, and painters, ranging from the vastly experienced to trainees.
Not everyone in the building is a creative, though. “Last, but not least we employ an accountant. With so many artistic minds we need someone to keep us on top of things we all might otherwise avoid.”
The challenge of popularity
With its emphasis on individual skill, the revival of a lost art form and the sheer beauty of its end product, the company has been fortunate in terms of publicity and media interest.
“We don’t do any targeted sales or paid advertising of any sort,” says Bellerby. “Our company is so unique that we have requests coming in daily for collaborations, photoshoots, filming, from people who just want to see the studio. We also have a really popular Instagram [@globemakers].”
To an extent, the challenge can be not letting such requests and distractions get in the way of the real business at hand, especially as the manufacturing process is far from being an exact science.
Bellerby says: “I run things day to day, making sure we are on schedule as much as possible. Exact deadlines are impossible with handmade and hand-painted work as you cannot rush anyone or predict the setbacks that may be ahead. I also have fun things to keep on top of such as payroll and ordering wood, metal, paper and inks and generally keeping things as organised and tidy as possible.
“We have had an order book taking us anywhere between six months to one year ahead for a few years now, so the focus really is just on making beautiful globes. “Brexit has not impacted us at all, we have always had customers worldwide and we have only continued to see increased sales.
“As far as the future I don’t think any of us have a clear idea of what is still to come. We’ll have to see and roll with the punches if any come our way.”
It’s surely not too fanciful, in this context, to imagine Cook or Nelson standing in their ship’s wardroom, thoughtfully perusing a suitably elegant globe and uttering a similar statement.