Glassmaking is an ancient craft with an interesting history. In the Middle Ages it was a very secretive medium, so hidden, in fact, that glassmakers in Venice would send out death squads if someone decided to sell their secret techniques in places such as Prague or Amsterdam. Yet the secrets did escape, and the Dutch made Facon de Venise, their version of Venetian glass. The Czechs, who were great glassmakers, also adopted secret techniques. Layton emphasises that historically, an artist or craftsman would not have access to glass like we do now. Glassmaking was carried out in industrial facilities and artists would train for decades, moving from one function to another before they would be considered proper glassmakers. Even then they would only make a goblet or something similar. Layton points out that it was slightly different in Venice because they would have been making glass since the age of nine. This made the process more versatile and they were able to use a variety of techniques.
I understand that you initially train in ceramics. What inspired you to move into glassblowing?
I was teaching ceramics in the States. As a student I had experimented a bit in combining glass and clay, so I was interested in glass, but knew little about it. In America during the 1960’s there was a potter called Harvey Littleton, whose father was a research chemist at Corning Glass in New York and instrumental in the invention of Pyrex. Littleton was interested in the question of working glass like pottery, on its own, so he traveled around Europe, visiting places including Venice and Southern Germany and taking clues he found back to the States. In 1962 he set up a symposium and gathered a dozen potters together at the Toledo Museum of Art. This was a difficult time, but a man called Dominick Labino, a well-known local scientist instrumental in the invention of fiberglass and developer of heat-resistant insulation for the exterior tiles of space shuttles, came to their rescue. He showed the potters a small test furnace and bought in some special glass that could be melted and a glassmaker to teach techniques. The seminar was a great success and a second one was organised, different people attended and it gradually became a global movement from which the phenomenon of modern glass originated and spread. This went above and beyond what went on in the factories.
As a potter, I was starting to work faster and faster. Clay is quite a long-winded process, you have to make it, slowly, well if depends if you’re a thrower or a handbuilder, I was more of a handbuilder and then you have to dry it and bisque fire it, and glaze it again. If you’re lucky you get to open your kiln maybe once every few months, or once every few weeks, depending on how much you make and what techniques you’re using. I moved from earthenware to stoneware to the Japanese technique Raku, which is a very quick process where you fire the pots in sawdust or wood and you pick them out with tongs and bury them in the sawdust.
The thing about glass is that it’s even quicker, even more spontaneous and immediate. It allows you to open your kiln every couple of days, even every day. I worked at the Glasshouse in Covent Garden, which was the first public access studio in London. I was offered an exhibition at the Commonwealth Art Gallery as it was in those days, in a beautiful building in High Street Kensington. I was making pottery at the time and the Director didn’t quite know what he was going to get. It wasn’t about making a few pots; it was about making a statement. I made these big installations, many feet across, focused on the theme of ‘Keep off the Grass.’ There was a bowling green with a pavement you couldn’t walk on, a ‘Last Supper’ and a patio with silver plated plastic gnomes standing on guard, at the ready. It was such a cerebral activity. It was also an epiphany. I really needed to get my hands back on material, I felt like I was done with ceramics and was ready to move on.
In the studio we tend to anneal the glass for about two days, which is the slow cooling process that takes the tension out of the glass, because in this studio we work thick and relatively big, and our colours have to be compatible otherwise the pieces will crack. Watching the process of glassmaking never gets tiring, partly because the works vary so much. We use the free blowing process, where pieces, hand or machine-made, are blown into moulds. We try to make every piece unique, within the boundaries of the series. So we’ll experiment: change the colour, its intensity, the shape. It’s wonderful when things come out of the process that weren’t planned. It’s still very exciting making decisions and this constant decision-making, the focusing and refocusing, is what appealed to me about glass. There’s a lot of chance involved and I love that aspect too, pieces go wrong and you learn from it and we devise how to develop from the mistakes. We’ve all worked together over a number of years, so my studio knows what I’m after and often I will get involved and direct them. Often they tremble because they know I will love the one that’s gone wrong! Glass is the most exciting medium to work in, we are all in love with it, with the material and its potential.
What do you think are some of the challenges facing glassblowing?
We are in a situation where the British glass industry has virtually died. All those traditional skills such as shoemaking have gone too. In fact, the studio, like ours, is the new industry. There are concerns that glassblowing will die out altogether because of emissions, the rising costs of fuel, and vanishing skills. If you want to run a studio in central London, which we do, then we’ve got to develop and grow. I happen to like using red. For example, my series called ‘Poppies’ used very expensive materials and the main constituent of yellow and red, Selenium, went about 700% in a year because the Chinese happened to be sitting on most of it. We like to think of ourselves as artists, but this is really where the best glass is being produced in our country at the moment. In fact, our ethos, unlike in a factory where all works are the same, is to make each work different and much more spontaneous. We have the advantage of versatility; we only have one furnace and two glory holes and we can change colour and shape with each piece. We make decisions as we go about these factors. It takes time to develop and we do work in series, simply because the cost of running a studio is very high. Even the cost of our raw materials has shot up. As it happens, we import our glass in a safe, pelletised form from Scandinavia. There is probably a cheaper material we could use but this one works well so we don’t want to risk the possible fallout from changing it.
Escalating costs is joined to the fact that the public is still not tuned into contemporary glass. We are currently working for Collect at the Saatchi gallery in May, where we have shown work for the past couple of years. Collect is modeled off SOFA (Sculptural Objects and Functional Art) in the States, which is the main international exhibition of its kind. Run by the Crafts council, Collect is the leading art fair for contemporary objects in Europe, showcasing wood, ceramics and jewellery. There’s also European, Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean work on show, although it’s predominantly British. Glass is a bit underrated; it’s still a Cinderella, and hasn’t had the support that other mediums have because people don’t know what is involved in the process. People walk into the gallery and their jaws drop! Glass is such a versatile material; we are primarily blowers but other techniques include casting, slumping, fusing, sculpting and from time to time we show work of that kind too. The public are still very excited by antiques and cut glass decanters, by Wedgwood and that sort of thing, but we are helping to raise awareness of glass and our gallery is very much part of the push to change its status and promote the medium.
In May, there’s also the British Glass Biennale in Stourbridge. The latter is a juried exhibition so about ten of us from the studio have submitted proposals. You’re supposed to send images of finished work but I’m still making mine, as it is a two metre high steel and glass object. I am revisiting ideas from my ‘Reef’ series, making jewel-like, fish-like objects but in a totally different way. I don’t know what they are going to look like at this stage, experimenting is fun. I need to get the form and colour right and find a way of applying them to the metal. I did one version with the ‘Poppies’ series that attached magnetically but I need to find another way of doing it. Luckily, we have managed to survive through various recessions. I think what has helped us is our flexibility; if some works are not going to sell we know pretty quickly. It’s not all about selling but what with the rent, the raw materials, the labour and running the furnace, we do need to have an eye on the commercial side of running a studio.
Tell me about some of the other artists, such as Van Gogh and Turner that have inspired your work.
I’ve been very inspired by other painters, it’s a phase I’ve been going through. I like using the glass in a painterly way and have made flattened pieces that remind me of a canvas. I started off with a series called ‘Paradiso’ that was inspired by the British painter Howard Hodgkin and has been successful. More recently, the Royal Academy asked me to pick a few works for the David Hockney retrospective. I coincidently knew Hockney, as we both grew up in Bradford. I chose three of his paintings and encapsulated one of them, the ‘Arrival of Spring’, in a series. It was quite challenge to summarise the feel and quality of such an enormous painting into a rather small piece of glass. But it sold well during the show, and has subsequently been a success. Then the National Gallery approached us and invited me to choose a painting and I chose Van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfields’ series. I produced several sketches to try and achieve the wheatfield and in the end devised a technique where I put the wheatfield together with the sky. My version doesn’t have the cypresses in. It was challenging and involved a lot of development over time, but I enjoyed it and it has been successful too. Something in the Van Gogh series reminded me of Gustav Klimt so I did a lot of experiments with this idea, which didn’t completely work so I developed into a series called ‘Harlequin’ that I produced for our Vetero exhibition.
What else forms the inspiration behind your work?
Travel is definitely an important element in my work. I’ve just come back from India, where I traveled around Rajasthan for a few weeks. I saw beautiful colours and I don’t know how that trip will filter down into my work yet but I’m sure it will. Following a trip to Petra, I made a series called ‘Mirage.’ I was inspired by the way the city was carved out of sedimentary rock. The layers of sand, with the reds and blacks and so on, became dune like and that was in a sense a forerunner to the ‘Wheatfields’ series because I developed the technique of bringing the sky and ground together. Travel was also influential in a series called ‘Reef.’ I’m not a diver but I did go in a mini yellow submarine on the Great Barrier Reef and it gave me an impressionistic view of the seaweed and fish. The piece I am working on at the moment is one of the aspects that came out of the Vetero exhibition and it’s called Burano. Burano is a neighbouring island to Murano where they make lace. So this series explores the idea of lacy patterning over colour.
Layton’s studio in Bermondsey is a unique and atmospheric space where visitors can wander in straight from the street to admire works in the gallery, and watch the magical glassblowing process unfold.
By Isabel Morrish