Working on a Bellerby globe

Learning in the round

Spreading fingers over a globe, not pinching them on a screen, is the best way to answer questions


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Every map is wrong. Or, to be more precise, every two-dimensional depiction of the earth is doomed to inaccuracy. It is a simple geometric truth that the surface of a sphere cannot be rendered flat. Hence the need for approximate “map projections”, which have been refined ever since Mercator plotted Greenland the size of Africa (Algeria would be a closer match).

Correcting for nation size simply leads to other distortions, such as the long, thin representation of the Antarctica “circle” in the Gall-Peters projection. As a result, modern cartographers eschew rectangular world maps altogether. Thank goodness for a rounder alternative: globes. As soon as enough could be speculated of the lands and seas, a globe was the obvious form to depict the knowledge.

The oldest known dates from the 15th century. From then, their use grew as the Gutenberg press allowed for printed sheets to be overlain on spheres. The largest ever made were owned by Louis XIV, who consulted twin orbs spanning four metres across. Churchill and Roosevelt placed identical globes in their offices 250 years later as they planned the Allied invasion. Until recently, every Royal Navy ship was equipped with a celestial globe, for use in extremis should modern methods fail.

The Globemakers: The Curious Story of an Ancient Craft, Peter Bellerby (Bloomsbury, £25)

Yet, today, globes can be hard to find outside a classroom, perhaps even languishing in a corner, relegated by a large television display. This digital blackboard is a stark reminder that flat projections of the earth have never been more prevalent. But no amount of definition gives a pixel the third dimension. Spreading fingers over a globe, not pinching them on a screen, is the best way to answer questions such as why hemispheres experience different seasons, why the sun sets so rapidly at the equator, and why trans-Atlantic flights cross the Arctic.

In the pursuit of equality, we would also do well to remember that globes are an objective way to view the world. No decision is required on where to place the centre, “east” and “west” are relative concepts only, and every nation is presented in its proper proportions.

Overall, there is no better — or fairer — method for gaining perspective on our geography. This is a case that did not need to be made to Peter Bellerby. Fifteen years ago, he set out to procure a quality globe as a gift, but, failing to find a vendor, revised his mission substantially and determined instead to construct one from scratch.

By his own admission, he had no plan, but his dogged pursuit of an accurate, artful object led him to create Europe’s foremost hand-crafted globe-making company. This book is the story of an unlikely artisan, told by the man himself from the sole perspective of his business. Ordinarily, that might ring alarm bells (we are seeking objectivity, after all), but the book is no advertisement for anything other than the qualities of dedication, precision and persistence.

To make a globe, you must first construct a hollow sphere. Map segments, known as gores, are painstakingly applied to the surface, then embellished with hand painting. The object is then balanced so it can spin around its axis freely, placed on a stand and surrounded by a metal meridian.

Each step is a craft in itself, which Bellerby had to master, given the decline of small manufacturers who once specialised in such trades. As a result, these are luxury items; anything other than a desk version sets you back a five-figure sum.

The book details the globe-making process in depth, appealing to makers and mappers alike. It makes for a comprehensive biography of these wonderful spheres, presented in a form as beautiful as the objects themselves. Illustrations bring it to life, particularly photographs of a workshop that is a cross between a renaissance studio and the planetary factory envisaged in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It is hard not to be warmed and impressed by Bellerby’s apprenticeship of trial and error, which took years to refine. He has created a successful business, a profession and an art form that are all entirely consistent with one another — a rare feat in the 21st century. The book shows what we can achieve when we dedicate ourselves to a pursuit; how deep we can go when we focus on one thing alone.

It has all the more meaning given the very purpose of the object is to educate and inspire. If the art of learning is to become less wrong about our world, we can do far worse than make a globe.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover