Over the years, London has replaced smoking chimneys with thrusting skyscrapers and as a result we tend to assume it is somewhere where things are sold rather than actually manufactured any more. However, tucked away in a corner of Bermondsey is a very special exception. London Glassblowing is a thriving hub of craftsmanship, where beautiful glass sculptures are born from firey kilns in the heart of the city. The organisation is headed up by Peter Layton, who has worked tirelessly throughout his life to keep the art of glassblowing alive. Despite now being nearly 80, he remains very hands on – spurred on by a love of his craft and the energy of the artists he works alongside. He dashes around his studio with the energy of someone half his age, thrusting poles into furnaces, providing tips to the resident artists and chatting to members of the public who have wandered in from the street, drawn in by the unusual spectacle. The format of the studio demonstrates the two sides of the craft – the front of the building is occupied by a pristine shop dotted with orbs of swirling, vibrant glass that sit like precious jewels on white stands, and behind this sits the grittier origins of these beautiful pieces – a glassblowing studio with three kilns roaring open-mouthed along the back wall.
I am surprised to learn from Peter that the glass studio movement is in fact quite young, at just over 50 years old. Naturally, glass has been around for thousands of years as a material, but it has only recently begun to be used as a medium for contemporary art. American glass artist Harvey Littleton is credited with fathering the studio glass movement, opening the first ever glass studio at the University of Wisconsin. From there, his students went on to spread their skills globally and the movement was born. One of his best-known students was Dale Chihuly whose giant twisting chandelier has become an iconic centrepiece of the V&A museum.
Like Littleton, Peter started out his crafts career working in pottery, teaching ceramics in Scotland. After a spell in the US brought him into contact with glass, he became bewitched by the medium and ended up founding his own tiny glassblowing studio in Scotland. The studio moved to Rotherhithe in the mid 70s, staying there for 16 years before transferring to London Bridge and finally settling at its current home on Bermondsey Street. Today’s studio is split into gallery space at the front and furnaces at the back, which run constantly, 360 days a year, holding about 150 pounds of glass that melts overnight. Members of the public are encouraged to watch the artists at work as they thrust long metal poles in and out of furnaces and fantastical globes of molten glass take shape, oozing like treacle.
While I was in the studio, the talented Bruce Marks kindly gave me a crash course in how to create a colourful paperweight. He helped me push a large rod into the furnace, picking up glass like honey on a knife and turning the rod constantly to stop it from dripping off. The sticky glass orb is then dabbed onto trays of pigmented powders, which form coloured streaks of glass in the final product.
After firing the glass in various kilns, Bruce picked up a folded newspaper, wetted with water and used it as a kind of pad on his hand to shape the glass as he rolled it back and forth. I was surprised to learn that when the glass is red hot you can’t see what colours the pigmented powders have created, so it’s largely guesswork until the glass has cooled a couple of days later. This made the intricate colour work of some of studio's artists even more impressive.
This piece that we created (below) which appears green and red actually cooled to reveal beautiful blue-toned colours, but while it's still hot you have no idea what the final outcome will look like. Watching the other artists at work, you begin to appreciate what a delicate and refined art glasswork is.
“People’s jaws drop when they come in – it’s like an Aladdin’s cave,” explains Peter. “They can’t believe all the things you can do with glass – we produce a hugely varied body of work.” I found myself completely blown away by some of the incredible, intricate work Peter’s artists produce. A collaboration between Hanne Enemark and Louis Thompson has spawned some breathtaking giant glass sculptures that house a mesh of delicate branch-like threads inside, resembling a forest.
Eliot Walker’s sliced fruits are also quite astounding...
And Tim Rawlinson’s prismatic sculptures are nothing short of mesmerising. I had never seen glass like this – the more you stare, the more hidden depths you uncover, and your mind begins to boggle as to how the pieces are made.
At a time when so many artists are finding themsleves forced out of London by spiralling studio costs, it felt really heartening to be a part of Peter’s supportive artistic community for a day, where the older generation are helping secure the future of younger artists. “We all have input into each other’s work and there’s a great sense of community,” says Peter. “The deal is people help me with my work as I’m getting a little older now, and in exchange they get to use the facilities for what they want to produce. We encourage them to showcase their work in the studio and I keep in touch with everyone once they have left. It’s like a huge family – we support and encourage each other.”
For Peter, it is absolutely crucial to have a studio space in London as it enables customers to see for themselves the hard work that goes into creating glass art, and understand the value of those skills. Being able to talk to and interact with customers also has benefits for Peter, who says chatting to customers often sparks off new ideas. After clients pointed out that their small London apartments couldn’t house some his larger pieces, the studio started making miniatures of its most popular designs that proved to be a great success.
Alongside his studio, Peter is looking to preserve the art of glass through his organization The Contemporary Glass Society, which now has around 700 members. The charity has become a key international community for connecting glass artists and customers, as well as sharing ideas and resources that will help keep the craft alive. The studio also participates in the Craft Council’s annual ‘Collect’ exhibition, which showcases the best in contemporary craft from across Europe, and also hosts workshops during London Craft Week in May.
I really recommend popping in to watch the London Glassblowing artists at work. Peter is a warm and friendly host who overflows with enthusiasm for what he does. If ever there has been evidence that doing what you love keeps you young, than I’m sure Peter is it. Watching the artists at work is a true privilege, and a rare opportunity to see such an unusual craft in action. The fact Peter is happy to provide the public with the chance to watch his artists and interact with them for free is testament to the spirit of what London Glassblowing is about. As he put it: “The more unusual things like our studio are promoted and championed, the more variety there will be for people to enjoy.”