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

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