Worlds of discovery
From her studio in Vauxhall, south London, Sylvia Sumira expertly handles the daunting task of cleaning up mini Earths, caked with the grime of history
As one of the few accredited conservators of antique printed globes, Sylvia Sumira’s London studio is knee- deep in planets awaiting her attention
Describing herself as a conservator rather than a restorer, Sylvia Sumira has dedicated 30 years to saving small versions of the world – printed globes from the past 300 years. It is a task that involves removing layers of dirt and sometimes performing major surgery to reveal their hidden beauty and their secrets. ‘My aim is to bring them back to a point where they have aged gracefully, rather than looking as they would when they were new,’ says Sylvia.
What’s your background? After an art history degree, I did a two-year post- graduate course in conservation of works of art on paper. During my second year, I saw an advert for an apprenticeship in globe conservation at the National Maritime Museum.
I didn’t know anything about globes and it was di cult to find out about them, as there were very few books on the subject, but to my astonishment and delight they o ered me the job. I worked there for four years. When the contract ended, people started asking me to work on their globes, so in 1987 I set up on my own.
What is your area of expertise? Globes were first made in the 16th century. Basically they are plaster balls with an inner shell of papier mâché, built around a wooden support. For the maps, paper strips that were printed flat called gores, were pasted onto the plaster shell like the segments of an orange. From the 16th to mid 19th centuries they were hand- coloured and varnished. From the mid 1800s lithography was used. The globes I work on are mostly from the 18th or 19th century and are printed. But I have worked on much earlier globes, including a couple of 16th- century examples by Gerard Mercator. His cylindrical Mercator projection is well known, but in fact he made globes too and they dominated the 16th century.
What drew you to this eld of conservation? I think working on globes was just a unique opportunity. The collection at Greenwich is really fantastic, one of the best in the world. We all know what a globe is; a spherical map of the world. But they are much more than that. If you think of an old globe, there’s a brass ring
We all know what a globe is, but they are much more than that… if you know how to use one, they are calculating machines
that goes around it, that the globe can be turned in, and they also turn on their stands. It’s a bit like a 3D slide ruler. If you know how to use a globe, you can work out all kinds of things such as where the sun will appear in the sky at di erent times of the year or when di erent stars will rise. Globes are calculating machines.
What has been the highlight? Mercator globes are rare; there are less than 100 in existence. One was a celestial globe belonging to Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum; the other a terrestrial globe belonging to the Maritime Museum, Rotterdam. Globes were made in pairs so you would have a terrestrial globe and its celestial partner: the heavens and Earth in two spheres. In fact, celestial globes were made before terrestrial globes – before people started sailing around the world you could see more of the sky than the Earth.
Talk us through the restoration process When a globe comes into the studio I examine it, take photographs and read up about the maker. I make a note of any damage and then come up with a strategy. I usually start with gentle surface cleaning, using a soft brush, then move on to a swab lightly dampened with water. Just rolling it gently over the surface can remove a significant amount of grime. Sometimes surface cleaning is all it needs, but if there are areas of damage, I usually have to take the varnish o to get to the paper. It’s a question of excavating through the di erent strata of construction, because with a globe there isn’t a front and a back like a painting; the centre is quite inaccessible.
How important is it that these globes are restored? Until recently, globes were a bit forgotten. The problem was, in an ever- changing world, no sooner had they been made than they were out of date. But then came a point where the fact that they were out of date made them interesting again, because they show us how the world was seen 100, 200 or even 300 years ago. They also remind us of the knowledge we have lost. We rely on clocks now, so unless you’re an amateur astronomer, you’re unlikely to know what’s going on in the sky. When globes were made, the constellations you saw rising and setting reflected the daily rhythm of life and changing seasons.
What are your plans for the future? A couple of years ago I wrote a book called The Art and History of Globes; an introduction for people who didn’t know much about them. I’d love to do more research when I have time.
ABOVE Globes old and new adorn the shelves in Sylvia’s south London studio FACING PAGE Wearing a headband magni er to leave her hands free for the delicate task, Sylvia gently rolls a swab over the surface of an antique globe to remove the centuries of dirt and dust
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP A close- up shot of a model world reveals the great level of detail that can lie hidden beneath layers of grime and dirt; ne brushes are essential tools for such detailed work; the conservator tackles stage one of the cleaning process with the gentle sweep of a brush; little Earths and their stands await Sylvia’s expert attention