Wednesday, 24 April 2013

"Once it gets you, you're besotted"

Peter Layton’s glassblowing studio operates something of an open door policy. On a warm spring afternoon its glass doors, cathedral-like in their proportions, are indeed propped open and passersby breeze in, drawn by the psychedelic glassware on display and, beyond, the workshop with the “blowers” themselves.

Soon a crowd is gathered. Layton, 75, urges them to sit: the more people who see this extraordinary work, he reasons, the better it is for business. Some remain for an hour, hypnotised by its theatre. More than any other craft, glassblowing has an air of alchemy about it: in the space of a few hours, an unpromising nugget of brown glass, dipped in powder, will be transformed into a shimmering, painterly vessel. If – and it’s a big if – it turns out okay, it could fetch £4,000.

At 35, this is the oldest glassblowing studio in the UK. Located near London Bridge, it is a collective of freelance artists headed by Layton. Chatty, avuncular and twinkly-eyed – and youthfully dressed for a septuagenarian – he offers hands-on design advice to the other artists. His mug says "The Boss". 

Without warning he will leap up and consult with a blower on how his piece is taking shape. There’s no room for dithering: molton glass doesn’t stay molton for long. Across the workshop is a minor emergency: a crease has appeared in a piece that’s destined for an exhibition. The blower is experienced and Layton stays seated, but pulls a worried face. “As if he didn’t have enough to contend with.”

It’s this collaborative approach that has kept them going so long, he says. “Glass is labour and cost intensive. So sharing overheads really helps. Gas prices and raw materials have gone up astronomically. China is sitting on all the selenium stocks and prices have risen 700%.” Selenium provides the red in glass – can’t he just make fewer red pieces? “No! I can’t tie my inspiration to the selenium market.” He points to his most recent pieces as proof: exquisite scarlet poppy heads half a metre in diameter.

Layton is self-taught, and started out as a potter. But he fell in love with glass. “Once it gets you, you’re besotted. Even the heat on your face from the furnaces is addictive.”

And it is hot, sweaty work. Layne Rowe, one of the studio’s most experienced artists, is making the final piece in a series of large-scale vessels started by Layton called The Arrival of Spring – inspired by David Hockney’s giant canvas of the same name (Layton and Hockney were childhood friends in Bradford). 

The process has a simple rhythm to it. Rowe, above in white, alternately fires the glass, which is on the end of a rod, in a small furnace, and coats it in powder or shards of thin coloured glass, which will add a striped effect. Occasionally, he dips the rod into another oven, which coats it in a gloopy layer of transluscent glass. He rolls the glass on a metal surface or massages it with a thick wedge of newspaper to change its shape.

Two hours on, the glass is as large as a bowling ball and Rowe staggers under its weight, sweat pouring off his forehead. A pair of assistants are now helping him, opening secondary oven doors to accomodate the larger piece. “I’m worried about his shoulder,” says Layton. “He did it in recently, and it put him out for months. I don’t want him to overdo it.”

He is constantly nurturing young talent. Today, the workshop is buzzing with bright young things who manage the shop, design the website, package up parcels. “I had a call today from a young chap wanting a job. I know him, he’s brilliant. We’re going to try to fit him in.” He adds, brightly: “I think glass is on the up. It’s sheer good luck for us.” I expect luck only plays a small part. 

Photographs: Anna Huix 

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