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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Bespoke globes from Bellerby & Co Globemakers

The pleasing symmetry, painstaking precision and balance of power contained within a globe are just some of the qualities that make this the ultimate bespoke acquisition.
Livingstone globes by Bellerby & Co. Gareth Pon / www.garethpon.com
Livingstone globes by Bellerby & Co. Gareth Pon / www.garethpon.com

What gift do you present to the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world?

That was the challenge faced by the United States’ army chief of staff, General George C Marshall, in the midst of the Second World War. Twice.

Charged with sending a Christmas gift from the US army to both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, Marshall decided to give them the world – or the closest approximation as was possible in 1942. The general commissioned a pair of globes from the Weber Costello Company of Chicago, a manufacturer of furniture and educational equipment that was renowned for the artistry of its scientific instruments.

Using the latest maps compiled by the US Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of today’s CIA, Weber Costello produced two globes that stood five feet high, weighed 340 kilograms each and measured 13 feet in circumference. And it wasn’t just their enormous size that made the Weber Costello globes unique – it was their mounting as well. Instead of rotating around a fixed axis like a traditional globe, Marshall’s gifts rested on a series of rubber roller bearings that allowed them to be rotated in any direction.

In many ways these gifts were an obvious choice. Globes had been used to signify a particularly potent blend of knowledge, power, control and prestige for millennia, and Marshall’s conceit was to celebrate Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s status by placing the world, quite literally, at their fingertips.

The general’s intention, however, was rather more than a simple exercise in ornamentation and flattery. Recent events such as Pearl Harbor, and advances in aviation and weapons technology had effectively redrawn the map by rendering the distances between continents an irrelevance; the result was an urgent need for a change in geographical and strategic perspective that reflected this new political reality.

Paradoxically, considering it was the dawn of the jet and nuclear age, it was a two-millennia-old piece of apparatus that was best placed to achieve that shift. Globes were used to provide the new understanding of direction, scale and distance that was required by London and Washington.

For the London-based artisan Peter Bellerby, a man whose career has become inextricably linked with the Weber Costello globe that was presented to Churchill, the perennial appeal of globes lies in their perspective-changing power and ability to explain relationships and adjacencies in ways static maps cannot.

“Every map involves an element of error because it’s a projection,” the softly spoken Englishman explains. “A projection involves taking the globe, unfurling it and creating a projection so that it sits flat on a wall. The Mercator projection, for example, makes the latitude lines much larger towards the poles so that Canada, Greenland and Antarctica appear absolutely huge, whereas on a globe they are geographically correct.”

Globes have certainly had a transformative effect on Bellerby’s career. When the 49-year-old first attempted globemaking seven years ago, he was working as the boss of an upmarket tenpin bowling alley in central London and, just like Gen Marshall, he was in search of a special gift.

“My dad’s 80th birthday was coming up and I thought it would be a nice idea to get him a globe for his study,” Bellerby explains. However, after a two-year search, the Londoner was thwarted by the absence of accurate, high-quality terrestrial globes that “weren’t mass-produced” or “500-year-old antiques”.

The gap in the market persuaded Bellerby to try making his own. He set himself what he considered to be a generous time limit – four months – and a “more than generous” budget of £5,000 (Dh27,900) for the globe, but it wasn’t long before he realised that both estimations were woefully inadequate.

“Things got totally out of hand,” he admits. “I didn’t even tell anyone I was doing it for the first four or five months, other than my girlfriend who had to live in a plaster of Paris-filled house every day.

“It eventually took 18 months and more than £150,000 [Dh834,000] to produce the first globe, by which time I had decided that I was going to turn it into a company.”

One of Bellerby’s greatest challenges was the rediscovery of skills that had been lost from an industry that had all but disappeared.

“The last decent globes were made in the 1930s but the last that were made entirely by hand date from much further back, so I knew at the very beginning that there was nobody around who could help me.

“The difficultly I had was that none of the current breed of commercial globemakers are producing anything close to a perfect globe. There are makers whose maps overlap to such an extent that they wipe out entire countries.”

Of all the processes involved in the creation of a handmade globe, it was the application of map sections, or gores, to the globe’s surface that Bellerby found most challenging.

“The whole thing was a process of trial and error. You have triangular pieces of paper that you have to wet and then stretch so they fit over a sphere without any creases. You can imagine the difficulties in doing that.

“Initially I was also making globes from plaster of Paris and it took half a day to make each globe, spread over three or four days. I then had to apply the maps and if I made a mistake I had to throw the whole thing away.”

Bellerby’s other main challenge was finding a manufacturer who could make a perfect sphere. “This was the beginning of my introduction to the world of tolerance,” the craftsman says. “I found several companies prepared to make a 50-centimetre sphere mould, but the moulds weren’t round and were far from accurate.”

Not only would any inaccuracies affect the way Bellerby’s globes would spin and come to a stop, but they would also make it virtually impossible for him to achieve the level of perfection he was looking for in his maps.

“The problem is that we’re constantly fighting against pi. If you can imagine sticking 24 pieces of map on a sphere and each one is 0.1mm too small, you’ll have a 2.4mm gap to contend with by the time you’ve finished.”

Eventually, he turned to the fabricators who make moulds for Formula 1 cars in order to achieve the desired result. If Bellerby’s attention to detail sounds obsessive, it was also the thing that finally enabled him to achieve his dream of making the perfect globe and of setting up Bellerby & Co, his London-based bespoke globemaking business.

“There just seemed little point in spending two years researching a project only to produce something with a poor-quality finish,” Bellerby insists, speaking to me from the workshop where his team produces bespoke globes for private clients, film and television productions, and even the renowned British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.

The studio currently makes around 300 globes a year. “When we’re making globes we do everything here literally in slow motion,” the artisan says. “Sometimes there might be five of us here in the studio but nobody will be talking. You have to focus really, really hard and all of your movements are very slow because the tolerances are minuscule and you just can’t afford to get it wrong.”

Bellerby has one of his private clients to thank for his introduction to the Churchill globe, which now represents his company’s pièce de résistance. “A few years ago, an American man asked me to make him a really large globe based on one that had been made during the war for an American general,” Bellerby explains. “I looked online and found that two had actually been made during the war, one for Roosevelt and one for Churchill. They were not the right globes but when the gentleman saw them he said that he preferred them.”

With characteristic patience and attention to detail, Bellerby then set about trying to find the Churchill globe. The artisan even spoke to Churchill’s grandson, who said that he could remember playing with the enormous globe as a child.

It took around six months to track it down.

“It’s at Chartwell, Churchill’s family home in Kent, but because the people who work there were so worried that another museum might want it, they would tell us it wasn’t there every time we phoned up. When we turned up in person, however, they were happy to talk and were very helpful and kind.”

Bellerby and his team were particularly fascinated by the manufacturing method of the globe and the unique nature of its mounting. “It was really unique because it was the first globe of its kind ever made where the sphere sat on roller bearings.”

Unfortunately, time and the methods and materials involved in the globe’s manufacture had not been kind to the object. “You can imagine that roller bearings from the 1940s don’t have a particularly long lifespan,” Bellerby says. “The Churchill globe now has skid marks all over it where the original rubber has been worn away.”

Thankfully, the design of roller bearings has developed since 1942 and even though Bellerby’s replicas operate and look like the original Churchill, they use the very latest technology.

“It’s a sphere on top of a sphere on top of lots of spheres,” Bellerby reveals. “We have the globe on the top of bearings and then there’s a small bearing underneath that, and beneath that there are hundreds of little bearings that enable the whole thing to be as frictionless as possible.

“If you’ve ever seen a behind-the-scenes programme about airports, warehouses or even production lines, they use the same technology to allow a single person to move heavy loads across floors.”

Because of its size and complexity, it takes two artisans at Bellerby & Co to make a modern Churchill globe and the process is so time-consuming that only one can be made each year. Bellerby insists that his workshop will only ever make 40 of the behemoths, each for a sum of £39,900 (Dh223,000).

The challenge of making the perfect globe has taken Bellerby’s life in directions that the former bowling-alley manager admits he could never have imagined.

“Maps may tell you how to get from A to B but globes inspire you,” the craftsman explains. “When I was brought up, I genuinely had no idea that a career in art was possible because I didn’t even realise the job existed. What’s fantastic now is that I’ve found something that I could be doing for the rest of my life and to date, this is the most interesting thing I’ve done by a country mile.”

nleech@thenational.ae