The simplest way to make a globe is to construct a sphere and paint it. The earliest globes would have been made of wood or metal, with the celestial or terrestrial map painted directly on by hand. Later, in the sixteenth century, hollow globes were made of thin sheets of metal which were then hand-painted. Mapping doesnt lend itself to painting and lettering by hand, and cartography was in its infancy, so early painted globes were necessarily very inaccurate.
Later makers pasted blank gores onto the sphere to create a more forgiving canvas for the hand-painted map and lettering. These are called manuscript globes. The invention of the printing press meant that maps could be printed as gores. A silversmith or skilled engraver would etch a reverse map on copper plates before printing using a process known as intaglio, from the Italian word for carving. In intaglio printing the etched plate is coated with ink, then wiped to leave ink only in the incised depressions, before being run through an etching press, in which dampened paper picks up the ink to create the printed image. Copper is a soft metal, so the plates lose their clarity relatively quickly; smaller print runs were therefore common. The effect, though, is very satisfying, with an intense character to the image. The globemaker then pasted the printed gores onto the globe and finally the painter would add color.
It was at this point that the globemaking craft became assimilated with the printing and publishing industry. Globes were after all now printed just like books, and since this time each edition has been referred to as a publication. And as in book publishing, copying the map from a rivals globe is plagiarism.
The golden age of the printed and then hand-painted globe coincided with the age of European expansion, reaching its peak at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In this period, as astronomical, geographical and cartographical knowledge developed apace, globemakers too were inspired to experiment and refine their art. In turn, the proliferation of printing presses made it possible over time to produce more globes at a less than exorbitant cost so they became more affordable to a greater number of people.
Nevertheless, the acquisition or commission of a globe was still the preserve of the aristocracy and the affluent merchant class. Because of the delicate and time-consuming nature of the work, a budding globemaker probably would have required considerable financial backing. Globes therefore were prized symbols of status and prestige.
Studying these venerable antique globes, it was striking to see how little the methods of manufacture had changed from the mid-sixteenth century until the twentieth century, albeit there is always a mystery about the exact construction and methods because so much is hidden under the surface it was only in the last century that the rot set in. I knew that I had high aspirations but did not want to simply reproduce some sort of cheap faux-antique facsimile. Instead, my ambition was to produce a handmade globe that felt classic yet at the same time unusual, relevant and contemporary.
Excerpted from The Globemakers: The Curious Story of an Ancient Craft by Peter Bellerby. Copyright (c) 2023 Bloomsbury Publishing. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.