Peter Layton: The Godfather of Contemporary Glass-blowing

Peter Layton, godfather of contemporary glass-blowing.

Relative to painting and sculpture, glass is still an undiscovered and underpriced art form.

Peter Layton chuckles when asked how it feels to turn 80. “It strikes me as a bit of a shock. Who knows where the time went?” he laughs. “There’s so much I want to do — drop 30 years for a start. But creatively too. I feel like we’re just getting somewhere in getting the public interested in contemporary glass.”

Much of that interest is down to Layton. The artist, founder in 1976 of the London Glassworks kilnworks and gallery, co-founder in 1996 of the influential Contemporary Glass Society, has done much to drive changes in perception, going out of his way not just to make, but also to write and lecture about glass art in order to promote it.

“Relative to painting and sculpture, glass is still undiscovered and underpriced, certainly given the astronomical costs of working in it. It’s not just a question of putting a bit of board on an easel and off you go,” he laughs. Indeed, glass is, he argues, a kind of synthesis of other media: it’s sculptural, with surface detail, but also optical, playing with light and colour. And that’s especially the case for a Layton piece, the artist having developed a reputation for his experimentation with vivid, entrancing colour.

“I have always taken inspiration from painters,” says Layton, who has produced a special Van Gogh series for London’s National Gallery this summer, and whose work, and that of other glass artists who cut their teeth at London Glassworks, form part of ‘Celebrating 80’, a retrospective. Howard Hodgkin was an influence on Layton, as well as Jackson Pollock, David Hockney. Layton and Hockney, both natives of Bradford in northern England, even knew each other as schoolboys, and as teens went on holiday together. “We climbed a mountain that my mother expressly told me not to go up,” Layton recalls.

Unlike painting, a work in glass is at least in part a product of serendipity, a fact that Layton relishes. “Glass is the most incredible and seductive of materials. Once you’ve tried it you just want to keep working with it,” he says. “I love the spontaneity of working in glass, but also the unpredictability. You have to allow the medium to speak as well, as it were, so you don’t always end up with what you intended. You have to be open to being side-tracked into exploring other ideas.”

The results, however, are spectacular: the Paradiso series, for example, is a small galaxy of primary colour and seemingly endless tones; his Burano pieces freeze in time a web effect that it’s hard to believe is not computer generated. Don’t expect to find anything much to put flowers in here, or something to weigh down your papers.

“There’s always that craft/art dilemma in the way glass art is considered and I don’t suppose that will go away any time soon,” Layton concedes. “But then it’s a matter of culture. Go to Japan, for example, and craft objects are valued differently to how they are in the west. Still, it means glass has baggage, which means a lot of people still don’t know about contemporary glass. They need to. Because when they see it their jaws drop.”

‘Celebrating 80’ is at London Glassworks (click here) until 8 July.

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