insight - James Bissell-Thomas

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Occupation - Globe-maker

Greaves & Thomas are the only company worldwide who specialise in historical facsimile globes. Using plaster spheres, which are hand-papered and in some cases hand-painted, their collection spans cartographic history from 1492 to the present day.

As the beautiful ochre and blackish-green globe spun beneath my fingers on its ornate tripod stand, countless words and pictures flashed before my eyes.

People, places, legends, superstitions, beasts, natural resources, and astrological symbols are all depicted on the world’s oldest surviving globe – Martin Behaim’s Erdapfel (earth apple) of 1492.

Time-worn though the globe before me certainly looked, it was not the original Behaim. That treasured relic resides in Germanisches National Museum, Nuremberg. What I was spinning was an incredibly authentic-looking replica made by Isle of Wight, England-based Greaves & Thomas – the only company in the world specialising in historical facsimile globes.

Fine arts and antiques lover James Bissell-Thomas and his wife, Rosie, launched Greaves & Thomas in the late ’80s, making and selling copies of antiques and unusual objects.

James soon realised that antique globes were commanding higher and higher prices, yet no-one was making authentic-looking replicas. The copies that did exist had been geographically updated and were nothing more than “a garish sort of plastic mess”.

Spotting a potential niche in the market, James decided to produce his own facsimiles of antique, historically important globes, devoting the next three years of his life to finding out everything he could about them: how they had been made and who had made them down the ages in various countries.

He discovered that the globes of centuries past had been made of plaster and hessian and covered in paper segments called ‘gores’. “We’ve adopted basically the same method of manufacture, using spun-metal and resin moulds to make plaster balls to which the gores are applied.”

Artwork for gores is copied where possible from originals in museums and elsewhere. “Even when we find surviving examples, we have to ‘restore’ parts by computer before we can generate versions capable of being commercially reproduced on a printing press.”

When no gores are available, Greaves & Thomas calls upon the services of a scientific illustrator to generate virtually indistinguishable new ones using whatever reference material is available.

The trickiest part of the production process is lining up the 12 gores and sticking them into position before the glue dries. “You have to be spot on, or features can be hundreds of miles out! Practice, fortunately, makes perfect.”

Various varnishes are then applied to render the globes ‘ancient’. Finally, the spheres are mounted onto a wooden or metal stand appropriate to the age in which the original globe was made. Old materials are used whenever possible, with gores printed on recycled paper. Scrap mahogany and unwanted composite wood are used for some stands, old wrought iron for others, while unwanted brass is turned into meridian rings.

Another famous globe is the one made in 1533 by Hans Holbein who was commissioned to paint The Ambassadors – a double portrait of Jean de Dinteville and his friend, Georges de Selve – during a diplomatic mission to London. “As with Holbein’s other works, his pictorial realism is breathtaking,” says James.

Holbein made his paintings as realistic as possible, but in The Ambassadors he altered the small terrestrial globe on the first shelf of the table because he considered it to be a crude, poorly executed wood block. Using his engraving skills and knowledge of geography and cartography gained from producing two world projections earlier, “he transformed the forlorn monochrome globe into an object of beauty”.

Greaves & Thomas’ other noteworthy replicas include Vincenzo Coronelli’s terrestrial and celestial globes of 1688 and 1693, Scherer’s globe of around 1700 which shows California as an island, Cassini’s 1790 terrestrial globe charting the three voyages of Captain James Cook, Cassini’s 1792 celestial globe depicting the heavens, and Betts’ string-and-bead paper globe of 1850.

The company also makes modern spheres, as well as a growing range of customised and themed globes. Among the latter is one of Mars pinpointing the landing sites of various unmanned spacecraft, including the highly successful American Opportunity and Spirit robotic rovers and the ill-fated British Beagle.

Particularly interesting, but difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it before, is Greaves & Thomas’ Hermetic Globe which, says James, is made “by taking digital images of all that surrounds you, stitching them together, making the projection into a set of gores, then flipping the imagery so that when adhered to a sphere it reflects everything surrounding it as if it were a mirror ball”.

The company’s globes are limited by craft rather than number. “Although we turn out lots of 12-inch modern globes, which are the bread-and-butter of our business, we make only two to four Coronelli replicas, and about five Behaim iron-stand version replicas each year. Consequently, there is always a waiting list for our larger, more intricate, globes.”

In 1492, when Behaim made his Erdapfel, much of the world remained undiscovered. Half a millennium later, Man is on the brink of a new age of exploration as he takes his first tentative steps out into the depths of the cosmos. Perhaps in another 500 years’ time, Greaves & Thomas’ lovingly crafted facsimiles of historically important globes will be as highly regarded as Behaim’s is today.

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