LONDON — Peter Layton, the UK’s foremost glass artist, begins the interview with an apology. He has just returned from a week’s residency at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington — not far from Seattle — and along with the jet lag, he has a bad back.
But discomfort aside, Layton, a longtime champion of glass art, expresses delight at having had the opportunity to learn and bring new ideas and techniques back to his team at London Glassblowing — one of the oldest hot glass studios in Europe, founded by Layton in 1976.
This year is an especially busy one for the artist as he turns 80. As part of his birthday celebrations, he has invited several other British studio glass artists to show their work alongside his in “Celebrating 80,” an exhibition that runs at London Glassblowing until July 8.
He has also launched “Sunflowers,” a new series in collaboration with the National Gallery, London. Inspired by Van Gogh’s iconic painting, he has interpreted in glass what he considers to be the essence of the original. The bright, yellow flowers on each unique piece have been achieved through the application of multiple layers of colored molten glass, giving the impression of a brush stroke. He says that creating the desired effect had been challenging.
“Nothing we do in the studio is simple,” he says.
Dressed in a pair of jeans, Converse sneakers and a lilac and green checked shirt, complemented by a stylish pair of green wraparound glasses that sit snugly around his neck, his looks and presentation belie his age. We are sitting in London Glassblowing’s entrance, which also doubles as its exhibition space, surrounded by a blast of colored glass art displayed on numerous shelves, plinths and cabinets.
“When people walk through the door, they are amazed — their jaws drop,” he says.
Located on Bermondsey Street in southeast London, the area is the epitome of urban, creative cool. Several art galleries line the street close to the studio and the Shard towers and glitters behind it. The city’s Fashion and Textile Museum is up the road and London Bridge and Borough Market — the site of recent terror attacks — are just a short walk away.
The gallery forms only part of the studio’s 230 square meter space. At the back is the open fronted glassblowing studio where the blazing furnace is kept alight 365 days a year. The heat it emits is extraordinary, and, along with the vibrant array of colors, textures and shapes that are on display, is one of the striking features that greets any visitor to London Glassblowing.
Speaking above the noise of the raging furnace and the clanking of tools, Layton explains his love of working with glass.
‘Glass is extraordinarily seductive’
“Glass is extraordinarily seductive. The spontaneity and the immediacy of the material has always been something that appeals to me. The medium itself is incredibly versatile and the process is endlessly fascinating. Another glassmaker will focus on making identical objects but our philosophy is to make every piece different, even if they are in a series.”
Layton started out as a ceramicist and came across glassblowing when he was teaching ceramics at the University of Iowa in the mid-1960s, where he met potter and glass pioneer Harvey Littleton.
Layton attended one of Littleton’s experimental glass workshops and although Layton’s initial efforts with hot glass resulted in him badly burning the back of his hand — “I didn’t even feel it but smelled cooking flesh,” — it did not deter him. “Somehow, I couldn’t get the glass thing out of my mind,” he says, but it would take him about 10 years to make the switch from ceramics to glass.
Layton describes himself as being self-taught.
‘In Iowa it was the blind leading the blind, really… It was very much a process of rediscovery because glass, historically, had been such a secretive process’
“In Iowa it was the blind leading the blind, really. We were pioneers. It was very much a process of rediscovery because glass, historically, had been such a secretive process.”
In the 16th century, the Venetians would send out assassins to intimidate any glass blower that threatened to sell their secret, he explains. London Glassblowing operates as the absolute antithesis to this with visitors welcomed. Members of the public can come and sit and watch resident and guest artists at work and the studio regularly holds workshops for those who want to learn the medium.
Traditionally, studio glass was a kind of collaborative learning situation, he says — “Everybody rediscovered or discovered something and would share it and gradually people began to learn the technology.”
This collective approach is one he has always taken since he helped set up the UK’s first glass making cooperative in the 1960s. At London Glassblowing he employs a team of around 15 people and believes that his way of working — many pieces are the result of collaboration — has ensured the studio’s survival.
“The guys help me with my work and I help them with theirs. It’s symbiotic. We influence each other. Everybody contributes. It’s my version of a kibbutz,” he says.
A few years ago Layton challenged the studio to explore the influence of Venetian glassmaking techniques in their own work for an exhibition, “Vetro” — Italian for glass.
“We all came up with new pieces,” Layton says and points out two curved, turquoise vessels on display in the window, which form part of his “Burano” series. Their exquisite, delicate lace-like effect was inspired by the lace-making traditions of Burano, the neighboring Italian island of Murano.
He says that people often ask him about his legacy. “I’ve said, ‘I don’t know, I’m still too young!’” He laughs and then admits that the studio is his greatest achievement.
Layton — the original family name was Löwe — was born in Prague to Austrian Jewish parents who escaped Nazism and came to the UK with the then two-year-old.
“Legend has it that we were on the last train out of the city and it was pretty dramatic getting away.”
They went to Bradford, in West Yorkshire where Layton’s grandfather, a well-known Viennese pathologist, had already settled.
He thinks that the drama of those early years might well have influenced his work. Some of his sculptural pieces have an anti-war theme, such as his poppy installation, “Memories,” where red poppies are attached magnetically to a black steel “plant” structure. He then refers me to a group of blue poppies on the wall of the gallery.
“They’ve become more decorative but they started out very much using the poppy as a symbol,” he says.
Barbed wire and tanks have also featured in his work. He recalls creating a glass tank, which he titled “Perkashka” (“Barrier”), during one international symposium in former Czechoslovakia in the 1980s as well as a more recent piece that involved “chunky glass barbed wire and poppies. So these things sort of keep coming back.”
There is also obvious political sentiment in his evocative “Container Ethic Series — Essence of.” Two identical, empty large jars have the same amount of blood dripping from them. One is marked “Arab,” the other “Jew.”
Layton was an active member of the Zionist socialist youth movement Habonim for many years.
In his early 20s, he went on Hachshara (preparation) in Israel, and spent time on two kibbutzim in the Galilee — Beit HaEmek and Kfar Hanassi — and studied on Machon L’Madrichei Chutz La’Aretz, an educational program for youth leaders in Jerusalem. One of his teachers was Israeli painter, Yona Mach.
‘I gave English lessons to some Israeli kids and earned a bit of cash, which was strictly forbidden but I did it. The point was to pay and go and have art classes’
“He took me under his wing. You weren’t supposed to do this, but I gave English lessons to some Israeli kids and earned a bit of cash, which was strictly forbidden but I did it. The point was to pay and go and have art classes.”
Layton used his money to attend the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. He explains that at the time he was part of a garin (aliyah group) and fully intended to go and live in Israel but, “the art took over in a way.”
In addition to exhibiting all over the world, teaching and working with other artists and art institutions have been integral in Layton’s career. As well as other collaborations with the National Gallery, which were inspired by Monet’s “The Water-Lily Pond” and Van Gogh’s “A Wheatfield, with Cypresses,” Layton and his team produced a series of artistic glass for the Royal Academy.
This was based on an interpretation of one of David Hockney’s vast paintings, “The Arrival of Spring” from Hockney’s 2012 exhibition, “The Bigger Picture.”
Layton knows Hockney from his childhood days in Bradford although, he says, “we don’t move in quite the same circles now.”
The final pieces were examples of Layton’s trademark bold colors and painterly quality and, he says, they took a long time to develop. The process involved hundreds of sketches on the blowing iron until they achieved the desired affect.
“I’ve been trying to use glass as a canvas, so approaching it in a painterly fashion and working my way through painters who have been my heroes or whom I admire. Sculptors too.” But he emphasizes that, “None of us are trying to copy, we’re all trying to find our own direction and taking inspiration.”
For Layton, that inspiration comes from a number of sources, which includes fabrics and travel.
“A lot of my work is inspired by travel. For example, “Reef,” which was influenced by the Great Barrier Reef, or “Mirage,” that grew out of a day trip from Eilat to Petra,” he says.
In the past Layton has said that glass art has not been perceived as equal to other art forms. When asked if this is still the case, he thinks for a moment before replying.
“I’m glad to say things are now changing,” he says, “but slowly. There are masses of glass collectors — although not so much in Britain, where there’s more of an interest in antiques. But Dale Chihuly’s sculptural glass works have had an enormous impact. In a way, this is without a doubt the most creative period for glass art. Each of us are striving to find our own direction and I think we’re having a considerable impact.”