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Culture

The Lost Art of Recreating the Planet

On the transformative power of a handmade globe.

A map painter.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images; Jade Fenster, Bellerby & Co. Globemakers

Last year, William Shatner went to space with Jeff Bezos in a stunt that was intended to drum up feel-good headlines for the Amazon founder’s private aerospace company, Blue Origin. What Bezos’ PR team had likely not counted on was Captain Kirk returning to Earth trembling and weeping, with a frightening soundbite: “Is that death? Is that the way death is?”

Shatner was experiencing the overview effect, the profound and transformative sense of grief, awe, and protectiveness that comes from seeing Earth from space. And while gravity-observant non-billionaires might not be able to replicate that precise experience when earthbound, staring at globes for the better part of 15 years can probably get you pretty close.

“It definitely does make you think about how we are affecting the planet and how no one seems to really be taking it seriously,” Peter Bellerby, the founder of Bellerby & Co. Globemakers, told me on a video call from his workshop in London.

Bellerby, essentially, makes little blue marbles for the home consumer. He claims that his team at Bellerby & Co. are “the world’s only truly bespoke makers of globes,” an otherwise nearly forgotten art form that he fell into after failing to find a worthy globe to gift his hard-to-impress father for his 80th birthday. Having previously worked as a house flipper and the manager of a friend’s music venue and bowling alley, Bellerby was between jobs in 2008 when he decided he’d handmake his father’s globe, rather than resort to buying “a cheap, modern political globe” or “an expensive and very fragile actual antique,” he recounts in his forthcoming book, The Globemakers: The Curious Story of an Ancient Craft.

Peter Bellerby.Peter Bellerby.Euan Myles, Bellerby & Co. Globemakers

Bellerby’s obsession grew, and soon he was employing a part-time painter and woodworker, at one point even using a globe to recompense a friend’s labor, and taking commissions to offset costs. (Today, Bellerby & Co.’s pocket-sized globes start around $1,321 and can top $75,000 — much cheaper than a seat on Bezos’ New Shephard rocket, but the privilege of perspective is still going to cost you). Bellerby also began to realize what had been lost by the shift to mass-produced plastic globes: Lacking competition, makers had started to cut corners and get careless. “Some of the globes produced in the 1960s and ‘70s did a better job at wiping out entire countries than many dictators,” Bellerby writes.

Globemaking is just another version of map publishing, Bellerby further stressed to me, and while mass-produced globes are allowed to fall out of date, the bespoke nature of handmade globes allows his to be a little nimble. “We print all our globes a few months before they actually shipped to a customer, so they’re bang up to date,” he told me. But there are certain limitations, too: Unlike atlas makers, who have the luxury of closely examining small changes to coastlines due to things like climate change, Bellerby has a much more macro perspective of the planet’s shifting geography by virtue of his medium. “The scaling we are using, even for our large globes, is one in 10 million,” he went on. “So you don’t see the effects [of climate change] that much.”

Painting The Churchill globe.Painting The Churchill globe.Toby Essex, Bellerby & Co. Globemakers

In the decade and a half that he’s been a globemaker, the most significant reworkings (for climate purposes, anyway) have been to locations like the Aral Sea, and even that he partially chalks up to the fact that “the mapping probably wasn’t there 15 years ago to keep it up to date.” His team has also been keeping an eye on Antarctica, and he mused to me that “maybe we should be doing globes with the different — particularly Antarctic — ice sheets. But also in the Arctic Ocean, [since] the extent of the sea ice is reducing dramatically.”

This sort of zoomed-out perspective has, indeed, been its own kind of opportunity. While Bellerby’s clientele is typically more interested in personalizing the globe with an image of the family dog than receding ocean ice, the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare frequently uses Bellerby & Co.’s globes in his works. In one particularly striking sculpture series called “Earth Kids,” Bellerby supplied temperature heatmap globes that are used as the heads of Shonibare’s manikins. In one of the pieces, “Fire Kid (Girl)” from 2020, a character bends her head over a book titled Climate Studies while her temple — the southwestern United States — glows with a blush of “hotter than average” red.

Though something as ever-changing as global warming might seem strange to render permanent with an expensive, labor-intensive, hand-painted globe, in a sense it’s also the entire purpose behind such an artifact. They are “a historical document,” Bellerby explained, and intended to capture the world as it existed at the moment it was made. And while I wondered if that would make globes that have become outdated by the effects of climate change more valuable for future collectors, Bellerby pointed out that only very recently have globes and maps actually been very accurate at all; “outdated,” then, is not much of a value-add when basically everything you are collecting is.

What’s the purpose of a globe, then, really? Certainly, it’s not actual navigation; Bellerby rolls his eyes at films that nonsensically stick globes in the background of a sea captain’s quarters. Rather, they might help to “remind us of how minuscule — and insignificant — we are,” Bellerby hypothesizes in The Globemakers. “And how wonderful the world is, a beautiful planet floating in space, spinning within an infinite universe and an evolution of time so long that it is hard to comprehend.”

A Bellerby globe.The Livingstone Desktop Globe.Bellerby & Co. Globemakers

Call it the overview effect but without the mortal terror of staring into the black void of space. “One thing about making globes — it really does make you care about the planet and does make you think about things more,” Bellerby told me before racing off-screen to retrieve a globe that he then angled to show me the enormous blank space of the Pacific Ocean.

It’s a spot that I’ve looked at a million times, usually when I zoom out too far on Google Maps. “It kind of makes you believe that, maybe, it will help us out eventually,” said Bellerby, who’s looked at it a million times more. “Because we’re doing so much to deforest everywhere. You would hope there’s a limit to how much you could do to an ocean that vast.”

And for a moment, we both went quiet, staring at the planet between his hands.

Editor’s note: This article was updated after publication to clarify details about Bellerby’s work.

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Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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