Obscura Day 2017! Join our global celebration of exploration and discovery.
May 6

The Small London Company That Makes the World’s Most Beautiful Globes

A former bowling alley owner wanted to make a present for his father, and ended up with a thriving business.

article-image
Mini Desk Globes and an Ochre Livingstone desk globe in Bellerby & Co’s London studio. (Photo: Ana Santl)

Looking at a globe close-up is a wonderful thing. Interacting with a round replica of our world gives an entirely different sensation to say looking at Google maps and even a physical atlas doesn’t really give the true geographical sense of our planet. Two dimensional maps, often relying on the Mercator Projection, can show Greenland to be the size of all of Africa when it’s really more like Mexico. It takes a globe to really see that Texas may be the largest state in the continental U.S. but Australia’s largest state is three times its size. Or that the entire eastern seaboard of America fits quite comfortably into Kazakhstan.

For Peter Bellerby, a passion for globes has quite unexpectedly turned into a successful business—his company is one of the world’s only remaining traditional globe makers. “I think everyone has some sort of soft spot for globes,” he explains. “Maps are wonderful but globes are tangible and tell so much more of a story.”

Peter Bellerby in his studio by Ana Santl.

Peter Bellerby in his studio. (Photo: Ana Santl)

 An 80cm handcrafted and hand painted globe in progress, the ocean have been painted, then the shading around the continents, now further detail will be painted in the continents along with final washes of colour because the globe is placed on a handcrafted wood or metal base and shipped off to its new home, photo by Tom Bunning.

A handcrafted and hand painted globe in progress. (Photo: Tom Bunning)

Bellerby had been dealing globes of a much different nature, running a successful bowling alley, when he ran into difficulty finding a well-made globe to give to his father for his 80th birthday in the early ‘00s. He decided that the only thing to do was to make one.

Making a globe by hand turns out to be quite difficult. After you create perfect sphere, you have to precisely align thin paper strips at the North and South poles. Even finding an accurate map to use proved problematic. “We created our own cartography from scratch pretty much. I originally licensed a map and found so many errors that I spent a year re-working it all,” he says. After two years of trial and error, Bellerby finally ended up with his ideal vision of a globe around 2008.

Horizon bands for the bases of floor standing terrestrial globes hang in the studio, photo by Tom Bunning.

Horizon bands for the bases of the globes hang in the studio. (Photo: Tom Bunning)

Painting the first layer of pigment / watercolours on gores, once applied many more layers will be added, photo by Tom Bunning.

Painting the first layer of pigment on gores. (Photo: Tom Bunning)

Tap and Die, paints, tools, the desk of a globemaker by Gareth Pon.

The desk of a globemaker. (Photo: Gareth Pon)

Each Bellerby globe is work of art, meticulously and delicately painted in watercolor. The continents and coast lines are lovingly shaded in sumptuous colors as charcoal, turquoise, Prussian blue and champagne. Today Bellerby & Co. is a team of 10 or so artists and globe makers operating out of a studio in North London. The globes have appeared in the 2011 film Hugo, and as the starts of a first-ever globe exhibit at the Royal Geographical Society. Online, they maintain a big social presence, especially through their Instagram, which features office dog George and daily globe facts (like Uruguay has the longest national anthem and its president donates 90 percent of his salary and lives in a one-bedroom house with a three-legged dog). 

When the Louvre wanted a copy of the original celestial globe made for Louis XVI in 1683, the commission was given to Bellerby.

A colour chart made by the head painter at Bellerby & co. Photo by Ana Santl.

A colour chart made by the head painter at Bellerby & co. (Photo: Ana Santl)

Apprentices train for at least 6 months before making the smallest sized globes, the 23cm mini desk globe. At the end of each day, their practice globes are soaked in water and stripped back so they can practice again the next day. Photo by Ana Santl.

An apprentice’s practice globe is soaked in water before it is stripped back and worked on again. (Photo: Ana Santl)

“A lot of it was stubbornness in the end,” he explains. “I had a random idea for a hobby and it got out of control. If I didn’t turn it into a business after a certain point, it would have been an insanely expensive globe just for my father.”

The studio, photo by Alun Callender

Inside the studio. (Photo: Alun Callender)

One of the company’s most daunting undertakings was to make a version of the legendary “Churchill”globe. Originally crafted during World War II by Weber Costello in Chicago, these giant globes have a 50-inch diameter and weigh over 700 pounds. They were commissioned by the Office of the Strategic Service (the forerunner of the CIA) with a particular purpose in mind: Both President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill would have identical globes, thought to be the most accurate ones ever made at that point in time, that they could reference together while formulating their war strategies.

Bellerby says it takes around six months to complete just one of the globes, which range from £999 ($1440) for the smallest to £59,000 ($85,000) for the Churchill. 

Watercolour artist Isis who has been with the company over 3 years paints the detail on the larger globes, here she is shading around the continents on an 80cm globe. Photo by Tom Bunning.

Watercolour artist paints the detail on a larger globe. (Photo: Tom Bunning)

They also take commissions. Bellerby says that they have completed a Pangea globe (“the ultimate historical globe”) but they don’t advertise projects like that.

“I think it is more than globes,” explains Bellerby, “There is huge satisfaction in making something people will really cherish, something that isn’t a throwaway item and something that hopefully will remain in families for generations.” 

Update, 5/11: An earlier version stated that Texas was the largest state in the U.S.—it’s the second-largest, after Alaska.