What captures my interest about a brand or craftsperson is incredibly varied – sometimes it’s simply the beauty of the craft, other times it’s the ethos or spirit behind the project, but with globemakers Bellerby & Co, an instant attraction was sparked by the ‘about’ page on the company’s website. Over the years, the expertly polished brand blurbs I'm sent have started to merge into one homogenous essay on 'expert craftsmanship', however Bellerby & Co’s page was refreshingly different – written in first person by founder Peter, it detailed in honesty the trials of handcrafting a globe from scratch – something he set out to do eight years ago as a gift for his father’s 80th birthday. His wry essay on the woes of learning a craft from scratch (“Don’t get me started on the Aral Sea – that took at least six hours a day for about a year,”) instantly endeared me to him, and I found myself charmed by Peter’s slightly mad mission to teach himself a lost craft with no guidance.
Today, several years on from his first attempt, Peter’s globemaking studio operates out of a beautiful converted warehouse just off Stoke Newington’s Church Street, spanning two floors dotted with globes at various stages of completion. “We’ve been here just over five years,” he explains to me as we walk round the studio. “We initially occupied just the downstairs and three front offices, but as we’ve expanded we had to add in a mezzanine level.” The new top floor is one of the most picturesque workshop spaces I’ve ever visited, with sloped wood-panelled ceilings and a wall of windows that open out onto a terrace. Work stations are positioned around the room, with washing lines pegged with paper gores strung overhead. Quality control is overseen by George – the studio’s Boston Terrier – who pads between artists, curling up at their feet or occasionally positioning himself on an artist's lap to get a closer look at their progress. The whole scene seems positively idyllic to someone who taps away at a computer in an anonymous office all day.
The studio aesthetic and the historic nature of the craft creates the sense that Bellerby & Co. has existed for centuries, but in fact the brand was founded only in 2008, from the unlikely birthplace of Peter’s living room. Establishing a globemaking business was never Peter’s plan, who worked first in the DVD arm of ITV, before moving on to the Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes which he founded and managed for several years.“I have to confess I think I might be obsessed with spheres,” he admits. “It’s nice to have been able to sample so many different careers, but I’m so glad I’m doing this now – I’m very lucky.”
Peter’s entry into globemaking came as an accident, brought about by a fruitless search for an accurate contemporary globe. “At some stage in the past, globemaking became a mass industry – probably with the introduction of full-scale printing” he explains. “As a result, the quality of finish deteriorated as globemaking became a factory job – people hadn’t been given training in how to make them accurately, so they would slop on bits of map – they treated it like wallpapering. If pieces were too big, they would just overlap them until whole countries could be lost. Because of this, I found myself struggling to find anyone still making quality, handcrafted globes.”
Determined to source his father the perfect present, and with no one left to pass on the secrets of the craft, Peter bravely set out to teach himself how to make a globe from scratch. The process turned out to be unbelievably complicated – everything from weighting a sphere properly to how to translate a 2D map onto a 3D globe became a huge challenge, supplemented by a lot of guesswork. “It took 18 months of trying every day to glue paper on to the sphere until I got to a good enough level,” explains Peter. Even working out the recipe for the perfect adhesive took painstaking months of trial and error – so long that Peter remains unwilling to reveal the secrets of his bespoke mixture to this day.
It’s fair to say that most people probably would have quit such a complicated project after the first few days of sticky paper puckering and creasing against their will, but Peter is a man of remarkable grit. “I was brought up to do things accurately, and to a high standard,” he explains. “It’s nice to know you did something entirely under your own steam. I never liked being taught at school.” Countless failed attempts later, Peter emerged with his first globe of a standard good enough to sell. “I’ve never worked in a retail environment,” says Peter. “So the thought of someone phoning me up after I’ve delivered them a globe, saying ‘this isn’t what I expected it to be,’ is so horrifying to me that I would never want to be in that position. As a result, we make sure we do everything properly and if it’s not working, we start again.”
What started out as Peter’s one-man mission has now evolved into a team of 14 craftspeople, drawn from a diverse range of backgrounds in everything from fine art to woodworking, who each take six months to fully qualify in the skills required to make a Bellerby & Co. globe. Although artistic training is useful, Peter believes the most important qualities are personality-based. “The key ingredients are bloody-mindedness, persistence and patience,” he says. One wrong move in the finishing stages could undo hours of painstaking work, so the team are meditative in their calm as they delicately hand paint minute details onto each globe. When I’ve visited workshops in the past, older members of the team describe how difficult it can be to recruit young people willing to work in craft-based industries, so it’s refreshing to observe what a young and dynamic team Peter has working with him. The average age of his team, he tells me, is just 25.
In true Peter style, recruitment can be unstructured and based on instinct, but so far this unconventional method has unearthed some real talent. “Before Christmas last year Leo, now one of our craftsmen, knocked on the door and asked for a job,” explains Peter. “He didn’t speak a word of English so his boyfriend had to translate everything he said. He offered to work for free which I refused, but invited him to come here for a week or two to see how he gets on. He turned out to be phenomenally talented – he had worked on a conservation course at college and is an incredible woodworker. He’s been here almost a year now and he’s become a real asset to the team.”
Together, Peter's team produce a broad variety of beautiful handmade globes that range from modest-sized desk globes with a diameter of 23cm, through to giant versions at 1.27 metres, which require 180 hours of immensely detailed painting. Each globe is made-to-order, personalised with anything the client can dream up, from delicate engravings along the arm of the globe stand to custom colour schemes. Customers can even personalize the cartography of their globe to suit their personal narrative. “We let people pick out places that are important to them and add them to the map,” says Peter. “A lot of customers also request illustrations. For example, if they have holidayed over the temples of Myanmar in a hot air balloon, we’ll depict the scene in miniature at that location.” Everything from mythical sea monsters, family photos and love letters have been added to a globe, along with a new flourish Peter demonstrates to me by holding a globe to the light. Hand-painted gold edging following the coastline of each country begins to shimmer delicately. “It’s beautiful isn’t it?” he says.
From observing Peter's team at work, it becomes apparent that when every product you create is custom made, the whole process becomes immensely personal. The Bellerby & Co. team refer to each globe by the name of the client as it passes through each stage of production, so that by the end they feel they know the customer and their story. Peter tells me that his clients love to travel to meet the artists in person and establish a personal connection with the people making their product. “A lot of them make the journey here from as far as Mexico, America and Australia,” he explains. “People enjoy being involved in the process. It’s quite unusual to commission a product these days so customers really like to come and see where their globe is made.”
Everything about Bellerby & Co. is a tribute to doing things properly with real care and attention. In an age where so much of what we consume has been churned through a production line at speed, it’s heartwarming to observe Peter’s team carefully adding intricate detail to work they know will be treasured forever. “I think as a society, people are kind of done with owning tons of products,” says Peter. “Instead, they are becoming much more interested in sourcing a few really nice pieces that will last them a long time.” Peter believes that thanks to a long history of high-quality craft, the UK is well-placed as the epicentre of this new wave of considered consumerism. “Internationally I think people really respect London, and the UK, as a centre of excellence,” he explains. “English people are unable to compromise – they want to create best product possible, and international customers understand that.”
While his entry into globemaking might have been unplanned, it’s clear from talking to Peter that a real love for his product drives him today. “I think aesthetically globes are something amazing to have in your house,” he says. “I use Google maps every day to get me from A to B, but it doesn’t encourage you to make the decision to travel, it just helps you make the journey. Whereas, globes inspire you to visit new places. People might spend a lot of money on a piece of art, but there’s just as much time and energy put into that as one of our globes.” In recognition of this, one of the world’s mot famous art museums, The Louvre, have just commissioned Bellerby & Co. to craft a giant remake of one of the museum's 17th century celestial globes. “The aim is to hang it in the grand staircase,” says Peter. “They still have the original copper plates from which it was made so we’re working on that at the moment.”
Visiting the Bellerby & Co. workshops was a real treat. I admire Peter for his perseverance in rescuing a largely forgotten craft, and his persistence has paid off to the benefit of not just him, but also a team of craftspeople who get to make something beautiful every day. There's a real sense of community in Peter's workshop, and everyone involved in the project seems to really care about their craft and delivering the best results for clients. At a time when we hear so much of artists and craftspeople being squeezed for space in London, it's heartening to see a workshop positively flourishing in the city, rapidly outgrowing its premises as orders continue to flood in. If you fancy investing in something really special, then I reckon a Bellerby & Co globe is a wonderful way to spend your money.