The Globemakers: The Curious Story of an Ancient Craft by Peter Bellerby - review by Philip Parker

Philip Parker

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

The Globemakers: The Curious Story of an Ancient Craft


Bloomsbury 240pp £25

In 2008, Peter Bellerby wanted to give his father a globe for his eightieth birthday. What seemed a simple enough task set off an almost obsessive, decade-long journey, marked by a litany of mishaps that would have deterred anyone less determined. It ended with his establishing the world’s only bespoke globemaking company.

The first surprise in The Globemakers, Bellerby’s account of this quixotic enterprise, is that purchasing such a globe was not simply a matter of a quick online order and a repressed sigh at the shipping costs. After all, contrary to stubbornly held popular views of our ancestor’s geographical ignorance, we have known that the world is spherical since at least the 6th century BC. Plato in his Phaedo likened it to a leather ball, while the accolade of producing the first recorded globe goes to the philosopher Crates of Mallus, who is said to have made one in around 150 BC. Surely, Bellerby reasoned, a good-quality globe would be easy to find.

Nearly two millennia later, however, it seemed that the art of globemaking had been largely forgotten. Bellerby came across shoddy commercial versions designed for school classrooms and genuine antiques in auction houses that would have bust his budget. Even trips to Morocco and India, where surely the skills of artisan cartographers had been preserved, drew a blank.

Not one to be easily thwarted, Bellerby decided to make his own globe. In the process, almost everything that could possibly go wrong did so. Even the shape of the Earth posed a problem, as it is not quite a perfect sphere, but oblate (slightly flattened at the poles). Having decided to compromise and opt for two half-spherical pieces that could be fitted together, he found no one capable of casting moulds with sufficient accuracy to ensure that he would not be left with two orphaned half-spheres that didn’t quite match. Even after resolving this issue, extracting the globes from the moulds resulted in piles of cracked plaster of Paris and clouds of choking dust in the workshop he had set up at the rear of his house.

The first commission Bellerby received was for a 50cm globe from a librarian in Brisbane. As he struggled to find a workable method, the customer’s faith in his ability to produce it must have been sorely tested. The series of abortive experiments taught Bellerby a lot about the challenges of cartography, which he communicates here to the reader. Finding just the right way to prise the globes from the mould – a high-end air compressor finally did the trick – and locating the right paper and inks with which to make the gores (the sections of flat sheet mapping that are pasted onto the spherical globe) without everything seeping out to create a mushy, unreadable mess took months and an alarming chunk out of his bank balance. Bellerby’s frustration at the painstaking process of attaching the gores to the globe surface – after having found a glue with precisely the right adhesive qualities – is palpable. Right at the end of the process, he found that the paper had stretched slightly and so the final one overlapped the first by a centimetre (which may not seem a great deal, but when that represents 2 per cent of the Earth’s diameter, it’s equivalent to obliterating the Himalayas or wiping out Chile).

Bellerby’s account of the technical challenges of globe production is interspersed with a series of interludes on great globemakers of the past and cartographic history in general. Purists might wish for more, but Bellerby finds a fellow spirit in Martin Behaim, the Nuremberg entrepreneur who in 1492 created the Erdapfel, the world’s oldest surviving globe, beautifully finished by an atelier of painters and other craftsmen, only to find that Columbus had stumbled upon the Americas the very same year, rendering his masterpiece instantly out of date. Something of Bellerby’s unflinching ambition is reflected in the even more heroic efforts of the Italian cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli, who created two globes for Louis XIV of France. It took him twenty years to complete the monstrous pair, whose vast bulk – each with a diameter of around four metres – can still be admired in a hall of the National Library of France in Paris.

Although a celebration of the revival of an ancient craft, Bellerby’s work is also a lament for the fading away of centuries-old traditions. When he embarked on his globemaking odyssey, he struggled to find artisans with the skills to make the right moulds for the globes or foundries that could shape the meridians (the metal frames which girdle globes) in just the right way. Although he finally located the right craftsmen, some simply dropping in, serendipitously, to his workshop (by now in more suitable premises than his back room), many of these have now retired or failed to weather the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bellerby’s father finally did receive his eightieth birthday present, albeit more than two years late. Orders came in, including one to replicate the globes made for Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt so that they could plan strategy while poring over the same map an ocean apart (the scale was hopelessly small, but they must have had endless fun spinning them around). The company Bellerby founded now turns out over six hundred globes a year for customers who can have their own tiny village marked or more unusual requests fulfilled (a Hong Kong customer requested that four of his dogs be depicted flying biplanes, with the fifth shown floating by under a parachute). His book, beautifully illustrated with photographs of the various stages of his venture and a few illustrations of historic globes and maps, is hardly a blueprint for commercial success. But it is more than enough to stir up admiration for the craftsmanship of the great mapmakers of the past and the obsessive determination of a modern successor who revived their almost moribund art. 

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