BLOWN AWAY – The Art of Studio Glass
Originally published in January 2017 in American in Britain
The London Glassblowing Gallery- a mere stone’s throw from the Shard on Bermondsey Street. It nestles in an original corner of 18th-century London – no tower block in sight. Established by Peter Layton in 1976, the gallery is one of the leading glassmaking workshops in Europe. This year Peter, together with fellow artists and gallery staff, celebrate a double anniversary. Glasses will clink in honour of Peter’s 80th birthday plus 40 years as a designer-maker and mentor to aspiring glassmakers. He enjoys the distinction of being the ‘grand old master of studio glass’.
BLOWN AWAY – The Art of Studio Glass
By Abby Cronin
The London Glassblowing Gallery is a mere stone’s throw from the Shard on Bermondsey Street, a short walk from London Bridge. It nestles in one of the few original corners of 18th-century London – not a tower block in sight. Established by Peter Layton in 1976, this gallery is one of the leading glassmaking workshops in Europe with an outstanding reputation for excellence. This year Peter, together with fellow artists and gallery staff, celebrate a double anniversary. Glasses will clink in honour of Peter’s 80th birthday plus 40 years as a designer-maker and mentor to aspiring glassmakers. He enjoys the distinction of being the ‘grand old master of studio glass’.
The gallery has a welcoming atmosphere. Its front door is always open and people passing by tend to stop, look and enter. What they find is a stunning display of diverse pieces by Peter alongside work by a number of the finest contemporary glass artists from the UK and abroad. Shelves, vitrines and tables display an array of vibrantly coloured free blown pieces of art frozen in glass. Assistants and resident artists are on hand to discuss this amazing collection of designer pieces. The range of gracefully sculptured vessels combine brilliantly coloured painterly patterns with opaque and transparent elements. The studio pieces come in a multitude of shapes and sizes. Be blown away by this original work. They are three-dimensional, flat, round, rectangular and often floral or a fusion of features. Each one is unique and all are for sale.
Unusually, the London Glassblowing is a creative collective space with a strong team of resident artists and technicians working beside one another. The resident artists work in a large multifunctional studio space alongside Peter where they design and make their own pieces. The kiln is in constant use. Numerous events scheduled throughout the year are open to the public. There are glassblowing classes, exhibitions, an occasional auction, a Christmas Open House, a pop-up shop at Alfies Antiques, the Bermondsey Street Festival and even an Own Art Scheme used in galleries throughout the United Kingdom. And—their website is a remarkable resource! Before you visit, take a while to check it out. It’s a great introduction to London Glassblowing and features videos of the various activities held in the gallery. You can take a virtual tour, learn about the gallery’s history and watch demonstrations of the multiple stages involved in glassblowing. Think about which classes you might like to take and read bios of glass artists. The ‘wow’ factor is being able to see stunning images of individual pieces of contemporary studio glass made by established artists online. The website feels like the gallery’s archive.
Peter’s artistic journey in studio glass began while he was working in the ceramics department at the University of Iowa in the 1960s. Some of the potters there were experimenting with the pioneering hot glass techniques. He became mesmerised by the material’s immediacy and infinite potential and came under the spell of using hot glass methods for creating art. He explains, ‘Glass is magical and extraordinarily seductive…..Every piece is a challenge and an adventure…..You never know exactly what you have created until you open the annealing kiln and see how a piece has turned out.’
Since those early days in Iowa, Peter’s canvas has been glass. His inspiration and continuous interpretation stems from ancient Roman Mosaic glass which he has re-interpreted as blown forms. Peter’s Burano series consist of stunning examples known as the VETRO collection. The Burano series focuses on themes inspired by the tradition Venetian filigree work from the small Italian islands of Burano and Murano, not far from Venice. Burano is known for its excellence in glassmaking and in his VETRO collection Layton fuses different patterns: lace is set inside bold forms of colour. There are in Red, Black, Green and Blue Burano versions in the series which enfold bubbles of colour at the centre of the vessels. A black version is pictured.
Paradiso, one of Peter’s signature series, has evolved over the years. It continues to serve as a canvas for incorporating both flattened forms and vibrant colours which combine opaque and transparent designs with a glacial backdrop around the pattern. The series is an ongoing exploration of how to heighten the brilliance of form and colour and recent pieces have succeeded in achieving a hot and cold balance. They are among one of Layton’s most iconic series. Pictured here is Turquoise Paradiso. But there are numerous other colourways and shapes. Examples include pink, green, blue combinations and the different forms with names like Small Dropper, Small Stoneform, Medium V-form.
Throughout the past few years Peter has taken on challenging commissions from major museums and art galleries. Working with the National Gallery, Tate Modern and the Royal Academy of Art has been exceptionally productive. He has created an entirely new body of painterly-inspired work. His brief was to transpose the essence of the bold colours and patterns in paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, Klimt, Hockney and Pollock into hot glass. In 2012 the Royal Academy of Art held a major retrospective of David Hockney’s work, entitled ‘The Bigger Picture’ and the Academy asked Peter to interpret Hockey’s paintings in glass. Peter and David were old friends who had grown up together in Bradford and Peter has always had great affection for Hockney’s work. So – Peter and his team at Glassblowing worked closely with the RA over many months to realise Hockney’s artistic vision. The result is a spectacular series entitled ‘Arrival of Spring’ which captures Hockney’s vision. They are available in the RA shop or from the Gallery. Additional commissions from the National Gallery have challenged Peter to transpose the impressionism of Monet’s garden at Giverny into glass spheres, cylinders, and discs. Magically these pieces fuse the flow of leaves and undergrowth with pink, lilac and red petals. A further commission in 2013 for the National Gallery gave Peter the opportunity to select a painting by Van Gogh to interpret in glass. Van Gogh’s painting Wheatfield with Cypresses was chosen and after months of experimenting, Once again Peter and his team were able to portray the wheatfield in the foreground with swirling blue skies above. A few images from the Monet series are pictured.
The recent Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art was a reminder of the contemporary artistic scene in 1950s USA. While Peter was in Iowa in the 60s, it is likely that a few of these painters must have influenced him and nurtured his love of for their art. Perhaps the artist who made the strongest impression was Jackson Pollock. Elements in Pollock’s drip paintings are not that far removed from some of the drips and speckled features in Peter’s studio hot glass pieces. The shop at the Royal Academy currently features a spectacular glass plate by Peter Layton in the style of Jackson Pollock’s paintings. Indeed, in the 1960s Peter felt himself to be a part of the clay movement, known as Abstract Expressionist Ceramics—an offshoot of the Abstract School of Painting emanating from New York. In the signage next to the plate Peter explains: ‘…Jackson Pollock was among my heroes. The immediacy and spontaneity of Action Painting, emphasising the importance of process, material and gesture chimed exactly with my own work in clay. Just as Pollock’s organic lines, drips and splashes ‘capture the moment in flux’ so glassblowing freezes a moment of decision and discovery, recording controlled chance and drama in glass.’ Peter’s interpretation of Pollock’s style in glass is pictured.
The creative team inside London Glassblowing is busy and buzzing all year round. Exhibitions and demonstrations take place in select venues and partner galleries throughout the UK. In 2016, the Gallery participated in ‘Art Antiques’ in Kensington Gardens. Coming up in February 2017 Peter’s London Glassblowing Gallery has been selected to participate in the prestigious crafts fair COLLECT: The International Art Fair for Contemporary Objects. From 2nd-7th February COLLECT will exhibit museum-quality work from the world’s finest contemporary crafts galleries. Be sure to attend the fair in the Saatchi Gallery on the Kings Road. The Glassblowing Gallery will exhibit Peter’s work together with established glass artists. Later this year Peter will travel to the Tacoma Museum of Glass (Washington State in the USA) where, as a visiting artist, he will demonstrate his work to a new audience. Inevitably the natural beauty of the Northwest landscape is bound to influence and shape a new series of studio glass designs. Look out for them. Plan a visit to Peter’s gallery where you can see and handle some of the finest studio glass anywhere. You will simply be blown away.
Peter Layton London Glassblowing at 62-66 Bermondsey Street London SE1 3UD T 020 74033 2800
Get in Touch: Abby Cronin