Peter Layton is one of Europe’s pre-eminent glass designers. He has directly influenced several of this country’s leading glassmakers and inspired many more.
Peter was born in 1937 into a prosperous Jewish family who lived near Vienna and counted Sigmund Freud and several great musicians among their friends. As war loomed, his parents moved to Prague. In August 1939, they were forced to leave everything they had and flee to England – catching what turned out to be one of the very last trains to leave the city.
Peter’s parents spoke virtually no English and life was, at least initially, extremely tough. His grandfather, an eminent physician, had already escaped the Nazis and was living in Bradford, which is where Peter’s family eventually settled.
While at Grammar School, he met another boy who had also won the attention of his art teacher – his name was David Hockney. But art was hardly considered a viable way to make a living, so Peter was persuaded to go into the family textile business. However, he was soon called up to do his national service and hoped to go out to Suez, but the crisis there ended before he was given the chance. Rather than return to the textile industry, Peter decided to go abroad and on his return he attended Bradford Art College and then went to London’s Central School of Art and Design, to specialise in ceramics, where he was taught by several of the most respected potters of the time. On graduating, he was offered a teaching job in Iowa University’s ceramics department.
By chance, Harvey Littleton and a number of other potters were pioneering the use of hot glass techniques at that time. In 1966, Peter participated in one of their first experimental workshops and was bewitched by the immediacy and spontaneity of the medium.
"Glass is extraordinarily seductive," explains Layton.
Every piece is an adventure and you never know exactly what you have created until you open the kiln and see how a piece has turned out. I love that moment of surprise.’
Since returning to Britain, Peter has been a vigorous proponent of glassblowing as an artform. In 1969, he helped Sam Herman build the first furnace at the Glasshouse in Covent Garden and he subsequently established his own small glass studio at Morar in the Highlands of Scotland, a Glass Department at Hornsey College of Art (Middlesex University) and, in 1976, London Glassblowing Workshop in an old towage works on the Thames at Rotherhithe. In 1995, the studio moved to the Leathermarket at London Bridge and, in 2009, the London Glassblowing studio and gallery moved to more suitable premises on Bermondsey Street.
Along the way, Peter has written several books, received an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Bradford, become an Honorary Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers, an Honorary
life member of the Contemporary Glass Society and also been given the Freedom of the City of London. Glassmaking is perceived by some as a craft, and by others as an art. Some glassmakers create technically brilliant pieces and follow a precise formula, others prefer to create more abstract works that evolve during the creative process. Peter’s work falls firmly into the latter category and he is known for his strong use of colour, organic and sculptural forms and the ambitious quality of his larger pieces.
He is inspired by whatever is around him. For example, during the winter of 2009, the heavy snow turned his long commute by train into an intriguing black and white world full of movement and texture, shaping his recent Glacier series.
He has also created a number of conceptual pieces that reflect his specific concerns with issues such as ecology and religious and racial conflict.
At the age of 74, Layton says, “I suppose I may be in danger of becoming the grand old man of British Glass, but I have so much that I still want to do. A fellow artist recently described a piece that I had made for her by saying, ‘…it’s as though it holds all my travels in light’. Lovely compliments like that spur me on. You never, ever create the perfect piece of glass and there are always new ideas, techniques and challenges to master. Glass is such an underrated medium – there is a fluidity and uncertainty about it that I choose to embrace rather than overcome.”