There are always those moments in life that you look back on and inwardly cringe. As a writer, I have a constant fear that I’ll be like Bridget Jones, caught out for missing a vital piece of information: “You do know the Aghani-Heaney case?” “Yes, of course. Big case… featuring someone called Aghanihini.” “…Or two people called Kafir Aghani and Eleanor Heaney.” “That’s the one.”
Today was one of those days as I stepped into the London Glassblowing studio. I’m greeted by glassblower extraordinaire Peter Layton and his wife Ann. On first meeting there’s something familiar and warm in their greeting, like you’re being welcomed into their home rather than a gallery. Almost too familiar, like I’ve met them before… But there’s no time to dwell, as Peter takes me on a tour.
Wandering around the gallery and studio is like discovering a wunderkammer of glass. Ocean waves in freeze-frame in one corner, epic sandscapes in another, towers of crackling ice blocks in another. “I’m about frozen movement; I try to create a scene that encapsulates movement,” explains Peter.
Then there are pieces waiting to be finished, like the odds and ends of a toy shop, ready for their final touches and desperate to be placed on a plinth next to the others.
While Peter is the mastermind behind all the works you see at London Glassblowing, Ann is also the guiding force behind its success. She calmly interjects the conversation with the proper names of collections and pieces, and the correct dates (“we’ve been in the space on Bermondsey Street for 12 years not ten”). It’s like watching a friendly match of ping pong as they fill in the pieces the other is missing.
As we meander around the gallery, I try and place Ann’s calming voice and Peter’s friendly manner. Maybe I’ve been here before? No. I’m so eager to have a go at glassblowing that I would definitely remember. Sadly, due to Covid regulations, this is on hold, although in normal times they do run classes. But watching the art of glassblowing is just as fascinating.
They used to have death squads to keep their secrets
Bermondsey Street Festival is coming back with a bang on Saturday 18 September
And so it was that he found himself graduating from the Central School of Art and Design to take up a teaching position in ceramics at the University of Iowa. It was here that he met Harvey Littleton, a potter considered to be the father of modern studio glass, who provided a personal introduction to the craft. “Harvey Littleton was even kicked out of studios in Murano because they were afraid he would steal their secrets!”
Keen to put the UK on the map, Peter founded London Glassblowing in 1976 and, after a stint in Rotherhithe, the gallery now calls Bermondsey Street home. “We love Bermondsey Street”, says Ann. “It’s such a great location; it’s like a little village.” However, instead of a post office that nobody visits and a corner shop that sells 10p sweets, there’s a culinary emporium. Along the road is acclaimed chef José Pizarro’s tapas restaurant, Angela Hartnett’s Cafe Murano, and Casse-Croûte for the finest French cuisine. What’s more, the White Cube Gallery is on their doorstep, as well as Bermondsey Street Festival, which welcomes stalls of crafts and food – and is coming back with a bang on Saturday 18 September.
We look on as resident artist Louis Thomson moulds glass, which has now turned into a gloopy rich nectar, and Peter talks me through its history. “Glass has been around for millennia; since Roman times. Secrets have been passed down from father to son.” For those whose glassblowing knowledge stretches as far as mine (not very), you’ll know that the island of Murano is seen as the epicentre of the craft, where the Italian craftspeople stake their claim as pioneers and keep their mastery of the craft well hidden – and it’s been like that for centuries. “Everyone outside of Murano wanted to know how it was done,” says Peter, “so [the craftspeople] used to have death squads to keep their secrets.”
At 84 years of age, Peter’s personal history is just as fascinating. Born in 1937 to refugees in Prague, life must not have been without its own challenges. His parents moved to the UK in 1939, and it’s here that Peter’s creative future took shape. While the key trade in Bradford at the time was textiles, Peter was keen to avoid the industrial machines and explore something creative instead. “It was a case of extricating myself. It was a medieval environment back in those days. They’d definitely not heard of dust masks!”
Back inside, I can feel my cheeks burning up in front of the furnace. We watch as Louis goes back and forth between his work bench and the startling heat to mould the glass. I’m told it’s a fine art getting the temperature just right, but even simply withstanding the heat seems an impressive feat.
Peter refers to all the glassblowers, apprentices and staff as “extended family”, and it does seem that way. “My daughter is a print-maker and she has started working with glass. She actually met her husband (Tim Rawlinson, another glass artist) at the showroom!” And you can tell he’s proud of her work. “She’s doing really exciting things,” he tells me. There are also pieces by Elliot Walker on the shelves, the winner of Netflix’s Blown Away (series 2), who transforms the mundane, from slices of lemon to stacks of sushi, into bold, eye-catching sculptures.
My ignorance is played out in full as I wander around in awe looking at the apprentices standing over machines that whirr and spin, and Peter shows me a whole kaleidoscope of colours and shapes that are being prepped. It’s interesting to me how the extreme heat, the hardy tools and the back-breaking work can leave behind something so fragile and elegant. “It’s such magical work,” says Peter and I can see what he means. This enchanting hub of creativity is alive with noise and warmth, showing the extreme effort that goes into handmade glass compared to factory-manufactured off-the-shelf stuff. Peter shows me the ‘punty’ mark left behind on some of the pieces, where the stand, which supports the glass in the making process, is chopped off – a sure sign that a piece has been loving created by hand.
Peter’s current solo exhibition, Time Traveller, is running until 4 September. Like a magician, he has captured some of his epic travels into glass, from the billowing red sands of Petra to the soft pink blossom of Japan, each frozen in a glass tableau.
Next up, from 10 September, is a grand celebration to mark the 45th anniversary of London Glassblowing. A whole host of people have been picked from Peter’s “extended family” to showcase their works, many of whom are leading British artists. From the late Sam Herman, who pioneered the studio glass movement in the UK, to Alison Kinnaird MBE and Katharine Coleman MBE – it’ll be a feast for the eyes.
As we wrap up the interview, we make some polite small talk and I mention my move to East Dulwich, which, it turns out, is where he lives. Suddenly, Peter exclaims: “Hannah! How did we not realise this! We met a few weeks ago at a wedding on the dance floor!” Ah. Yes. It comes flooding back to me… drunkenly and excitedly talking to Ann and Peter, the glassblowing trailblazer, after quaffing a whole bottle of red wine and three vodka shots. No wonder I had struggled to place them. At least I leave with my dignity in tact, upholding my skill as a first-class journalist. “So sorry, I was probably a bit drunk then.” “Yes,” laughs Peter. “You probably were.”