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Peter Layton

An interview with glassblower Peter Layton

10 December 2017 Alex Daniel

“This has always been a secretive profession,” says Peter Layton as we stand in front of a furnace burning at 1100 degrees Celsius. “The Venetians used to send out death squads to keep their techniques quiet.” I can tell this is a story he enjoys telling from the smile in his eyes. He refers to the glassblowers on the Venetian island of Murano, whose mastery of glass art in the middle ages prompted them to assassinate anyone who took their secrets elsewhere. Layton, a glassblower himself, has just had his assistant teach me how to make a bauble. At 80 years old he is pleased to impart wisdom – “except some things which I couldn’t possibly tell you,” he says mischievously.

We are in the workshop of London Glassblowing, Layton’s studio in Bermondsey, south London. Founded in 1976, it is the oldest glassblowing studio in the UK and serves as the workspace for 10 other resident artists. At one end are three furnaces big enough to fit a person in, heating the room so that it is already sweaty at 10am on a November morning. In the centre are three steel workbenches, around which lie tongs, irons and flameproof gloves.
 
It is an unforgiving environment. Everything is made to withstand the extreme heat of molten glass. It is rolled on the bench then shaped with tongs, coloured with powdered pigment and blown through the two-metre-long punting iron to form air pockets which expand with heat, creating the hollow object. It is then placed in an annealing oven – a cooling space held at around 500 degrees Celsius – and cooled over a number of days.


 Image credit: Fellow artist Bruce Marks and Hannah Marks
 
I find from my brief lesson that it is hard physical labour, and age prevents Layton from doing much of what he calls “the grunt work”. For this he enlists the resident artists as assistants. Still, long experience has not blunted his enthusiasm and he livens up when explaining the process. “It is really magical,” he says. “First you just have this molten stuff that goes solid - and then somehow at the end you've got a thing!”
 
He doesn’t seem to mind that other people handle the heavy lifting in the studio. "If they're the orchestra I'm the conductor. I like to work like that. Apart from the early days, glass has always been a team activity, a collaborative effort."
 
Layton’s early days are without doubt vital to the existence of glassblowing in the UK, as it was he that brought it back from the US as an art form. He discovered it by chance while teaching ceramics at the University of Iowa in the early 1960s, attending a course run by a student of the man credited with starting the modern studio glass movement in the US, Harvey Littleton. “Glass has always been big in the States. Bringing it back to Britain has been the real challenge,” he says.
 
“Those were pioneering days though,” he continues. “It was like the blind leading the blind.” So much so that he suffered a serious burn within a few days of taking it up. He explains how the syrupy lava sank from the end of the punting iron onto the back of his hand as he leant down to pick up his tongs: “I didn’t really feel it, I just smelt it – I thought somebody was cooking something wonderful. Then I looked down at my hand and thought ‘Oh god!’” Fortunately, medics were close by, and he has escaped with just a small scar on the back of his right hand.
 
The work in the next door gallery shows how far Layton has come since then. Most memorable is a range of vases designed after Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers series, commissioned by The National Gallery. The yellow flowers come to life, fighting for space against the translucent marble blue background. This is what excites him the most. “I love it when we make something extraordinary that is a vessel like that. That appeals to some entrepreneurial streak in me.” The ability to put such a piece together – impressionist art in a vase – is astonishing, let alone the success in capturing the spirit of the originals.


Image credit: An example of a piece inspired by Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers'
 
It is clear that Layton sees himself as just as much an artist as a craftsman: “It’s an interminable debate but I think the boundary between art and craft is rather arbitrary. You can see as much art in a beautifully crafted vase as in an oil painting. We tend to call ourselves artists, or fine artists in glass.”
 
The most expensive element of glassblowing is the heat required to melt the glass in the first place. The biggest furnace is the middle of the three and thunders the loudest. It is made of bricks and contains a pool of molten glass, incandescent through a small hole at the front. It never goes out, save for one day of cleaning each year.
 
Layton explains that running costs are even more of a problem now than they were when he started: “If I didn't have a studio already I wouldn't open one now. I opened mine on an overdraft and it's taken me 40 years to pay it off. I’ve always been in the red.”
 
Fortunately, it seems that glassblowing is growing in popularity with buyers. On top of the National Gallery commissions, Layton reports that walk-in customers are more frequent than ever, “more by luck than judgment”. His speciality is colour – as evidenced in the Van Gogh pieces – and this has increasingly driven sales: “People are more interested in having colour in their homes these days.”


 Image credit: Peter Layton with another impressionist inspired piece at The National Gallery
 
Similarly, more people are taking up glassblowing despite the financial hurdles. He explains that, far from the times of the secretive Venetians, young people working now are “riding on the shoulders” of the last half century’s work. “For me it was a love affair that started in Iowa and went on back home,” he pauses. “All I hope is that it’s more accessible than it was when I started out, so that love story can play out many times more.”
 
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