Artist Peter Layton on the sheer joy of glass
The renowned founder of London Glassblowing makes a clear case for an underappreciated art form
It was in the 1960s that the studio glass movement was born, spearheaded by American potter Harvey Littleton. Glass used to be made in factories and behind closed doors, with secrets passed from father to son, and people like me never would have had access to it. I originally trained as a potter and was in the US teaching ceramics when one of Littleton's students came to my university and gave a workshop in glass. I burnt myself really badly and thought I'd never want to do that again, but it really gets you – it was the beginning of a love affair. It took me ten years to switch to the medium, but since then I've never looked back.
There's a magic about glass – not just because it's a transparent material, but because of the fluidity and immediacy it has, and how its possibilities are endless. I went through two periods of working with glass. In the early days I learnt how to iridise, which creates this lovely oil-on-water quality with colour and gives it the most fabulous silky surface that doesn't mark when you touch it. I then went through a long stage of etching everything, and all my work used to be frosted. Now I make "proper" glass – it's shiny and has fingermarks on it. My work has become thicker, heavier and bigger – not big by art standards, but certainly by blown-glass standards – and it takes a lot longer to produce. In a factory, you wouldn't spend more than five minutes with a piece at the end of an iron, whereas here we can take several hours creating one item.
Like many handcrafts, you could say blown glass is a vanishing skill. There are a lot of studios around the world, but they're not all blowing – it's seriously expensive to operate the furnaces and maintain the space, and the materials themselves are costly. At London Glassblowing we have around six glassblowers (not including me) who regularly use the studio, and there's a lot of demand for furnace time. They help me with my own work, because I'm almost 80, but there's the facility to do their own pieces. Visitors can watch us at work, and we also run beginners' classes.
When the public walk through the door they're amazed – their jaws drop and they say: "I had no idea you could do this sort of stuff with glass!" They sit down and watch for a while and get a real understanding of the work that goes into a piece. Glass is still hugely undiscovered, both by collectors and in general, and in my opinion it's a hidden treasure. Here, you can discover it.
London Glassblowing runs glassblowing experience days, and ahead of Christmas you can try your hand at making a bauble, with sessions on 18 November, 2 and 16 December (priced at £50 each). To just watch baubles being made, artists will be blowing between 2pm and 4pm on 22 and 24 November and 6 and 8 December.
PETER LAYTON has been at the forefront of British studio glass since the 1970s and is the founder of gallery and studio London Glassblowing, 62-66 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UD; londonglassblowing.co.uk