Opening a glass studio in the UK in the 70s was a risky endeavour. The equipment itself is exceptionally expensive, and the UK public at that time had zero appetite for sculptural glass.
But Peter Layton, one of the founding fathers of the British Studio Glass movement, is no stranger to risk. Indeed, he was introduced to it very early, when in 1939 (at the age of just two), his family caught the last train out of Prague during Nazi occupation. At 16 he worked in the heavy wool industry, which at the time was both “horrendously dirty and toxic”.
In 1965 he fell in love with glassblowing while teaching ceramics in the US. He returned to the UK in 1968, and taught ceramics as a guest lecturer at various art colleges but was unable to escape the allure of studio glass. To that end, he started a small studio in the Highlands of Scotland. He soon realised though that small wasn’t enough, so in 1975 set up the London Glassblowing Workshop in Rotherhithe, London.
To start with, Peter funded the gallery through his work in ceramics, both creating and teaching. He also partnered with artists Charles Ramsay and Norman Stuart Clarke, which not only helped to pay the bills, but created an environment that promoted collaborative work and the exchange of rare skills and knowledge.
In the subsequent 45 years, Peter has seen significant success, releasing nearly 100 collections to date, and has been perfectly situated to witness and comment on the changes in the industry.
I got the chance to ask Peter some questions, and I wanted to reflect on that initial risky decision, and the opportunities that have flourished from it – not just for him but for new generations of glassmakers.
Where did your interest in glassblowing come from? Were your parents artistic?
I studied ceramics and while teaching this subject at the University of Iowa I encountered glassblowing for the first time; historically a hidden and inaccessible craft. These were the very early days of studio glassblowing. I was smitten by the possibilities of this emerging craft discipline.
My mother was a very creative person, and had been at the forefront of post-war handknitting as a designer and practitioner.
You started off in textiles, but soon left. What about it failed to capture your interest?
I would have been dead by 40. I was working in the heavy woollen industry (known as the rag trade) in Battley and Dewsbury, with horrendously dirty and toxic processing.
Given the British economy of the time, and the public’s lack of interest in glassware, what spurred you into making the leap from ceramics to glass? Were there any worries?
It was a total leap of faith for me to set up a studio in 1975. Of course there was no market for Glass Art. Craft galleries were unwilling to show glass because they felt that it required special lighting, which their customers didn’t have.
Could you talk a bit about the early years of London Glassblowing? Were there any difficulties?
It was extremely difficult and I funded my studio by part time teaching ceramics in various Art Colleges. My solution to the lighting issue was to explore the technique of iridising inspired by Tiffany and Carder. Iridised glass has a wonderful tactile quality and works in any light situation. This is how London Glassblowing first gained a following.
If you didn’t get into glassblowing, what do you think you would be doing?
I might well have continued with ceramics; clay is a wonderful medium.
What has been your favourite piece to make?
In the 80’s I was lucky enough to attend several International Symposia for Glass. In 1985 in Novy Bor, at that time Czechoslovakia, there was a working symposium at which I constructed a two metre high pyramid, constructed from hot cast bars of glass, layered up log cabin style. A stand out piece for the show!
And is there a piece you’ve absolutely hated?
There have been some projects that have not worked out as we had hoped. Obviously not every design that I work on, works out as well as I had intended. These have to be abandoned or re-worked if they have any potential.
What is the best part of your job?
I love being in the glassblowing studio experimenting with something new. At the age of 84 I mostly work in a directing manner with my talented team of makers working at the furnace. That is what I enjoy the most. Seeing what comes out of the annealer after 48 hours of controlled cooling can be a wonderful surprise – or not!
When you first started, did you ever think that London Glassblowing would celebrate its 45th anniversary?
Definitely not! I would not have imagined that I would still be working at the age I am now.
What changes to the industry have you seen In those 45 years?
I’ve seen the glass industry die, and studios like mine replace the factories that were once amongst the pride of British industry. It is great to see so many individuals now working in contemporary glass and that there is a growing market for their endeavours.
Do you have a fixed creation process when approaching a new piece of work, or is it more instinctual?
When creating something new, I work in a free manner, which I call sketching on the blowing iron. I have an idea of what I want to achieve, but I enjoy allowing the glass to flow and evolve into something unexpected, which it often does.
How environmentally friendly is glassblowing? What ways could the practice become greener, and is there anything London Glassblowing is currently implementing?
Glassblowing is not the most environmentally friendly activity since it uses considerable energy. We currently have a gas fired furnace but we are contemplating an electric furnace.
What has been the proudest moment of your career?
There are many proud moments. One of the most satisfying moments was creating a vast Atrium Sculpture for a cruise liner, Legend of the Seas. Watching the scaffolding being removed at 5am and seeing the piece emerge in all its majestic glory was a wonderful moment.
Conversely, can you identify a challenging moment or low point?
Trying to finish the above piece in the Legend of the Seas in arctic conditions; the side of the ship was open and facing Atlantic gales! We were running out of time, finishing the installation of fibre optic lighting after midnight, working on scaffolding, five storeys high, when the lights were turned off for security reasons. We finished the job holding a pencil torch in my mouth.
A morbid question, but how do you want people to remember Peter Layton?
I would like to be remembered for furthering Studio Glass in the UK through my own studio which is considered to be a creative hub and provides a working environment for a number of glass artists, not to mention a selling space as well. Also I have championed UK glass abroad at many international symposia, often giving presentations of other UK artists’ work. Also of course for my own work that I have created throughout my career.
As one of the founders of the British studio glass movement, where do you see its future going?
I am encouraged by the developing interest in glass as an expressive medium for Art/Craft.
If you could send a message to 16-year-old Peter, what would you tell him?
I would tell him to be more grateful to his loving parents who risked so much to escape from Nazi occupation. We were on the last train out of Prague in late August 1939. Like most 16 year olds, I took a great deal for granted.
How could somebody get started in glassblowing today?
The opportunities to study Glass at University and Art Colleges are less available than a decade ago, but they do still exist. Attempting to gain work experience is not easy either, but perseverance is the answer for anyone wanting to learn.
I had the opportunity to experience glassblowing for myself at London Glassblowing. I wrote about that experience, and reflected on the wider legacy of Peter’s work and the medium as a whole, and you can read it here.