Just metres from Bermondsey Street’s many digital creative agencies, where the latest software is used to bring designs to life, a more ancient form of art is in progress.
In a concrete floored studio, Peter Layton’s team at London Glassblowing seamlessly glide past each other wielding glowing red orbs of molten glass that they coax into otherworldly shapes on iron anvils. They work to a soundtrack of American blues musician, Otis Spann, as they plunge their creations back into the beating heart of the room, a furnace that burns at 11,000 degrees Celsius. It is dangerous, mesmerising, and anyone is welcome to drop in and watch.
After spending just a few moments in the company of Peter Layton, who founded London Glassblowing in 1976, it is no surprise that his workshop has an inclusive attitude. Sipping tea from his ‘boss’ mug - a gift from one of the artists in residence - the down to earth 82-year-old explains how he has dedicated his career to raising the profile of studio glass in the UK.
“People who are interested in glass seek us out, but the people who just walk in are very rewarding. Their jaws drop and they talk of treasure troves! By opening the workshop, we’ve introduced thousands to studio glass, which is still very much the Cinderella medium in this country for some reason, always below paint, sculpture and pottery in the hierarchy.”
If studio glass is Cinderella, then the 82-year-old is its fairy godmother. He has been at the forefront of British studio glass art since the 1970s, after falling in love with the medium while studying in America. Returning to the UK, he became a champion of the form. Today, London Glassblowing is one of the most highly regarded glass studios in Europe and has nurtured the careers of hundreds of contemporary artists. Some of their work is displayed in the studio’s shopfront, a white walled, white gloved gallery that is the antithesis of the gritty workshop beyond. Here prices range from £65 to over £10,000 making the art accessible to a wide audience from magpies to serious collectors.
Layton does not look his age (“You see him bouncing along in his trainers and jeans, and wonder what his secret is,” says one neighbour). However, in common with other eighty somethings, his face lights up at the mention of his young grandchildren who visit the studio all the time (he seems unfazed at the risk of breakages). His wife, Ann, helps run the business, while daughter Sophie, a printmaker, works a few doors along at Eames Fine Art. As well as two sons, his family extends to the ten artists in residence that help him make his art.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship. They help me with the creation of my work and we provide the environment for them to make and sell their own pieces,” he says.
Over the years, London Glassblowing has had three sites south of the Thames. The first was down an “old Dickensian alleyway” in Rotherhithe, where Layton used to dangle his feet over the flood wall. Next was a 15 year stint in Leathermarket Street, before arriving at Bermondsey Street ten years ago.
“I’ve seen Bermondsey change radically. It was a bit of a no go area in the early days. But it’s changing every week. There’s a wonderful new shoe shop just started and Mary Portas opened her charity shop on the street over a year ago. When clothing arrives that begins to change the balance.”
The local environment has long since been a source of inspiration for Layton, be that flotsam and jetsam on the Thames, or the area’s newest architectural forms - a stunning blue sculpture called ‘The Shard’ takes prominence on the shelf behind him. However, in recent years a lot of his work has been a response to famous painters, including David Hockney, a friend from his hometown of Bradford. The resulting pieces, often produced in collaboration with the large London galleries, are inspired by details, such as a particular colour or a minute corner of a painting.
The result is a showroom of ethereal pieces that glow with Monet’s greens, burst with Klimt’s oranges and dance with Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Each piece is unique, with not even Layton knowing exactly what it will look like until it is out of the tempering ovens.
“What happens between gathering the glass and making it is totally magical and I never get tired of working on it,” he says.
Explore the Neighbourhood – Layton’s Guide
Pizarro Restaurant, 194 Bermondsey Street, SE1 3TQ
This is a relaxed Spanish restaurant and bar. The food is great and Jose Pizarro is the loveliest man. He has got quite a bit of my work, some on the wall of the restaurant.
Tanner & Co, 50 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UD
An international menu prepared with locally sourced ingredients. We’re in there all the time. If we have to have a group meeting it’s like a second office.
White Cube Gallery, 144 – 152 Bermondsey Street, SE1 3TQ
One of the world’s leading contemporary art galleries. It is the most amazing space to just wonder in and have a look around.
London Glassblowing, 62-66 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UD