Bradford-born Peter Layton, sculptor and glassblower spoke to JLife as he celebrates turning 80 and receiving a special birthday commission from the National Gallery.
Can you tell us more about your early life and background?
I was born in Prague of Jewish parents and miraculously managed, as a two year-old, to leave with both my parents, in the latter part of 1939. My family settled in Bradford where my grandfather had become the city pathologist. I often wonder how my parents managed to leave on what is said to have been the last train out of Prague.
How did you get into glassblowing?
On graduating from Bradford Art College and the Central School of Art and Design, I took up a teaching position in ceramics at the University of Iowa. Harvey Littleton, a potter considered to be the father of modern studio glass, had recently set up the first university glassblowing department in Wisconsin. One of his graduates was also teaching at Iowa and I was lucky enough to participate in one of his first summer glassblowing workshops. We were total novices, but we built the furnace and other equipment and within a few days were attempting to blow life into misshapen ‘gobs’ of fiercely molten glass – how captivating and exhilarating!
You were a contemporary of David Hockney. Can you describe your relationship with your fellow Bradfordian?
We knew one another growing up in Bradford. I remember, as a teenager, meeting up with David on many occasions. One memory is that he always had a sketchpad in his back pocket and was constantly drawing. I think we all knew that he was going to be a great artist.
Do you get to spend much time Yorkshire?
It was a great place to grow up and study, and despite the thick smog from the factory chimneys it had a lot of charm. I still feel a deep connection to Yorkshire, but it’s a fair journey from London, so sadly I don’t visit often. I was recently awarded an honorary fellowship from Bradford College, of which I am very proud.
You were commissioned by the National Gallery to create a series that captures the essence of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. How did you approach the brief?
Over the past few years I have taken inspiration from painters whose work I love, moving to a more sculptural and painterly approach to vessel making in which the flattened form becomes a canvas for gesture and bold colour.
My series seem to take on a life of their own, growing and developing organically in unexpected and often unforeseen directions. My work does not seek to replicate, simply to evoke the essence and painterly qualities, in the medium of glass.
What have been the most interesting commissions you have created?
Maybe making lots of little vessels for a Chivas Regal [whiskey] video or contributing to a huge light fitting for an apartment in The Shard? But most interesting were the sculptures made at the International Symposia in the 1980s. During one conference in the Czech Republic I created an enormous glass pyramid of hot poured bars, which reached a final height of 2.5 metres.
Do you feel you have achieved everything you wanted to?
As I approach 80, having spent over 40 years working in glass, I realise how blessed I have been to be part of this young international glass art movement. Of course, one always feels that there is a lot more to do and I still really relish time spent experimenting in the studio.
It’s over 40 years since your studio, London Glassblowing opened – do you think today’s artists have the same struggles?
I suspect the level of struggle is the same, but it has to be said that they are very different in nature. In 1976 there was very little knowledge about small furnaces or glassblowing techniques and there certainly wasn’t a market for our firstly wobbly creations.
For many years after starting London Glassblowing, I continued to teach ceramics at Hornsey College of Art, in order to support the studio and feed my family. It is true to say that many artists today have to do similar things, so I think that it is still a struggle for artists today.
You’re synonymous with the art of glassblowing. Do you ever have a chance to consider the legacy you have created?
This becomes the crucial question, as time moves on, and I find I am asked this more and more frequently. I am extremely proud of having provided a facility for a large number of glass artists who have developed their practice and are working as artists now. Hopefully with some of them I have also provided support and mentorship.
How important is it to pass on those skills and to encourage collaboration and creativity to the next generation?
It is an honour and privilege to have known and worked with artists like Louis Thompson, who so impressed us recently with his sensitive and thought provoking installations in ‘Reflection’ at Salisbury Cathedral. There is a plethora of amazing ideas and visual interpretations of the medium in my studio alone: from the finely polished, intricate optical works by Anthony Scala and Jochen Ott to the complex colour works by Tim Rawlinson and Layne Rowe.
We the pioneering generation are being overtaken by incredibly talented young stars. This is entirely as it should be. The contemporary glass world is vibrant and growing and I feel that the future looks bright.
For more information about Peter Layton’s latest creations, visit the online shop at Nationalgallery.co.uk or Londonglassblowing.co.uk.