Photographer Steve Kenward heads to the Isle of Wight to meet the artisans who re-started the UK’s globe making industry and whose incredible facsimiles have been dominating it since
As a child I spent hours pouring over maps of the Americas, having been given an Oxford Atlas for my seventh birthday. A few years later, it was ‘upgraded’ to a 12 inch plastic globe and for the first time, I understood the scale of the world.
Maps are of course inherently political; as empires have crumbled and national borders changed – or been erased entirely – they’ve been produced and reproduced to reflect the changing nature of the modern world. No where is this more apparent than in map projections – Gerardus Mercator’s is probably most famous, with itsEurocentric land-mass distortions that have warped generations of geography students’ understanding of the world.
But, for me at least, globes have always maintained a sense of purity that wall-maps have eschewed, as well a sense of drama and scale that becomes lost in 2D projections. Of course, they are also beautiful design objects, and when well executed, they can outlast generations.
James Bissell, founder of Greaves & Thomas globe makers on the Isle of Wight, is one of the best historical globe makers working in the world today. From a background in antiques, James started his career in printing before moving into historical reproductions for the antiques trade, which included creating objects for the likes of Ralph Lauren’s London stores. “We made hundreds of polo sticks which never saw a polo field”, he says humorously, “ and hat boxes that never saw hats. We were making these rather nice items of a by-gone era, and I found myself getting more and more into production.” “In 1988 George Philip and Sons were sold off and at that point, there were no other globe makers in the UK apart from one company assembling American globes”, James adds. Recognising the opportunity to create a niche within the market, James spent two years researching traditional globe making, opening his London workshop in 1991. “We revived globe making in this country”.
The company relocated to the Isle of Wight in 1999, though in many other respects, they remain the same.
Given the industry’s extinction in the UK, how did James go about learning the skills needed to make traditional globes? “With lots of trial and error” he breezes. “It took about two years and we had nothing to go on apart from a few discourses by other people in the past. It was a long struggle” he says, “but we got there, and published our first globe, Merzbach & Falk’s 1881 Globe”.
Perhaps because no original examples of the popular Victorian globe exist, perhaps solely on the strength of its design, the Merzbach globe turned out to be a fortuitous choice: “We’ve made other globes since which have not proven as popular, so had we not picked such a good globe to start with, perhaps we might not have continued as we then did.“Our method of manufacture is time honoured” James adds. “We make large hollow plaster spheres, applying the map to that – our globes are hand papered”. A 12 inch globe requires 12 layers of gauzing in its production, and materials and aesthetics are all hand-applied by James’ team of four, using facsimile archives of historical globes as references. The globes they produce are so faithful in fact, they’ve even been mistaken for originals. “We were delighted when Christie’s sold some of our globes mistakenly as being originals” James tells me, “they went for very high prices”. Since then, Greaves & Thomas have developed the relationship with Christie’s, selling newly published globes. And in addition to the auction house, the team’s creations have turned up in films and productions, libraries and museums all over the world.
“They’re hand coloured, and the wood-work turning and the metal work all come together and it culminates in a good feeling that something is going out to somebody who really wants it”
More than 20 years on, James is still involved in every aspect of the business. “We’re all pottering round, doing various aspects of the job” he says, “I’m still hands on making them, broom sweeping and working on the computer”.
Antique globes never go out of fashion, but they do have their own degrees of popularity, as James explains. “Our modern day globes are always popular, as is our Alice Celestial Globe, where the characters of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass match known constellation in the heavens. And our large Coronelli 1988 and 1693 Terrestrial and Celestial Globes are always sought after. They sell very well.”
What is the ultimate satisfaction in making globes? “I like when a new a new globe is being made, and when a large pair of globes are going out. You know for a pair, it’s taken an awful lot of work. They’re hand coloured, and the wood-work turning and the metal work all come together and it culminates in a good feeling that something is going out to somebody who really wants it. It’s a lovely feeling.”
James’s company is no longer the only workshop producing globes in the UK, but the painstaking detailing of them and their rich and convincing patina are testament to the skills that go into making them.
And that is something that cannot be copied.
Photography Steve Kenward