Peter Layton has worked up something of a sweat over the course of his long career. But that is not surprising given that he handles molten glass at temperatures exceeding 700 degrees Fahrenheit.
For almost 50 years, the glassblower has led the UK’s contribution to the global glass art movement, challenging the supposed dichotomy between art and craft. Burned hands and frazzled lungs notwithstanding, his love for the shiny stuff is undimmed.
“Glass is an incredibly seductive medium,” says Layton, 76. “For the most part, people have no idea what can be done with it. But we’re helping to change that. People walk into our studio and their jaws just drop.”
He is not exaggerating. Anyone passing the London Glassblowing Studio and Gallery in Bermondsey — Layton’s base for the past four years — is unlikely to turn a blind eye. Sprawling glass doors reveal a gallery and shop and, just beyond, the compelling image of flaming furnaces and artists mid-process. Customers watch as artists blow air into pipes of molten glass, creating glossy bubbles, or shape their free-form pieces on rolling “punty” iron rods. “It’s funny, because for centuries glass was a totally secretive art,” Layton explains. “In medieval Venice, they used to send out death squads if anyone tried to sell technical information. People were chased to the gates of Bohemia. But we encourage visitors to sit and watch. We’re all about being open and accessible.”
Layton describes his studio as “like a mini kibbutz”. With nine in-house artists, almost every piece is the result of collaboration. This is a climate he has nurtured since helping to set up the UK’s first glass-making co-operative in Covent Garden in the late 1960s.
His interest in the medium was sparked by attending an experimental worship at the University of Iowa. Before then, he had trained as a potter — and earlier still, as a Habonim youth leader in Bradford.
“The first time I touched hot glass, I burned myself really badly,” he recalls. “I thought I would never do it again. But I seemed to crave that adrenaline rush. As I made the move away from potting, I started spinning the wheel too fast because I was trying to set up situations where I didn’t have control.”
The artist traces his need for speed back to his early life. Born in Prague to Austrian Jewish parents who had escaped Nazi Vienna, he was taken by them to the UK aged two on — “as legend has it” — the last train out of the city.
They settled in Bradford, where Layton’s grandfather, a famous Viennese doctor and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, had already made a name for himself as the city’s pathologist.
“It’s been suggested that my craving for lack of control goes back to my experiences as a two-year-old and witnessing the fear my parents felt,” Layton says. “It might be true. I certainly need challenge and adventure in what I do.”
Early brushes with war and religious persecution have clearly influenced his work. Among recent pieces evoking famous paintings of the past, visitors to his gallery can also find displays tinged with political comment (glass poppies, or empty vessels rimmed with red “blood” and labelled “Jew” and “Arab”).
Layton has exhibited in America and Israel and frequently in Europe. With his background, the Czech Republic holds a “great deal of resonance. When I went back to Prague for the first time, I visited the cemetery and the Terezin memorial and was totally overcome,” he recalls.
“I just thought ‘there but for the grace of God’.
“Glass is thought of as fragile, but it is the most recyclable material there is. For me, it represents endurance and survival.”