“People get addicted to this – it’s like gambling.” Elliot Walker twists the long metal rod in the furnace, molten glass wrapping around it like honey. “You could’ve spent four hours working on something, and then it drops on the floor and breaks. You lose, then you might win, and it’ll be amazing, and then you try and do it again and get that feeling back.”
Elliot is a glassblower at London Glassblowing, the longest-running glassblowing studio in Europe – it’s been just over forty years since it first opened its doors on Bermondsey Street. Upon walking into the studio, customers are greeted with an array of colourful glass pieces for sale – vases, tableware and sculptures, all with price tags in the high hundreds or thousands. Here at the back end of the building, Elliot is at work, performing to the soundtrack of chugging and whirring from the furnaces and kilns around him. An audience, sitting on plastic chairs, has gathered to watch – London Glassblowing welcomes spectators free of charge.
It’s a chilly afternoon in late October, but sweat is streaming down Elliot’s forehead. Several members of the audience peel off jackets and cardigans. “The heat is horrible,” says Elliot. “You do get used to it, but as soon as summer hits, everyone gets really miserable. It’s been well over 50 degrees in here.”
Elliot is working on a wine glass. It’s hypnotic to watch. Twirling the rod like a baton in his muscular arms, he flits from his work bench – where he uses various tools to shape the glass – to the reheating chambers and back again every 30 seconds. “Within about 30 seconds after being removed from the furnace, the glass has cooled from about 1000 to 600 degrees. All the shaping of the glass has to be done within that 30 seconds – left any longer, and the glass will be unworkable and have to be reheated,” he explains. The blowing happens when Elliot wants to add roundness to his piece – he blows on the end of the hollow rod to create a bubble in the glass.
It’s hard not to wonder why Elliot has chosen to dedicate his life to this process, but he insists that it wasn’t really a decision: “It’s not usually something you choose to do – it’s something you discover that you like.”
When he finished his BA in Psychology six years ago, Elliot enrolled in night classes making stained glass windows “just because there was one going at the time”. He then developed a deep interest in the glassmaking process and undertook a three-year MA in Applied Art at Wolverhampton University, with the aim of focusing primarily on the glasswork elements of the course. “There wasn’t much theory, and if there was, I didn’t do it. I was only interested in the practical side of things.” Elliot admits.
During his time at university, Elliot went to work with an established glassblower. Together, they went to events around the country demonstrating the process and showcasing their products. At one such event, his now-colleagues from London Glassblowing spotted him, and he was offered a job here once he had finished his MA.
“It’s a cushy job to land,” he smiles. “The emphasis here is on the quality of the work, not the quantity, so there are a lot of tea breaks and plenty of time to have a think and consider what you’re doing. If you make work he likes, then he doesn’t really mind what else you get up to, so…”
“He” is Peter Layton, the founder of London Glassblowing. “He’s the UK’s foremost glass artist – he’s sort of the master.” says Elliot. “There’s never really a typical day at Peter’s studio. We take our cues from him. Sometimes he’ll have an idea – maybe he’ll want to change a design that we’ve already done, or work with him to weave in a different idea.”
Elliot is something of a rarity among glassblowers: he is one of a handful in the world to focus exclusively on figurative sculpture. “I help out with functional pieces for Peter, like the wine glass, but all of my own work is sculpture,” he explains. He points out one such piece on display: a dismembered glass fish, its parts spread out to reveal its purple ringed insides. “It was made as a single fish, and then I chopped it into sections to reveal the flesh inside it, then polished it up,” he says.
But it’s not all about passion projects – Elliot gets commissioned to make some unusual pieces, too. “I had to make a basset hound, for this lady whose basset hound had died. She brought me in a little bag of its ashes, and I had to put it inside a piece of glass and sculpt this dog.” He laughs. “I thought it was really bizarre. There was no preamble, she just walked in one day and said ‘I want you to do this’.”
So, what’s next for Elliot? “I’m in the process of setting up my own studio down in Kent, where I live,” he says. “It’s early days, but the way my work is going, I need my own space so that I can really think about what I’m doing. I’m hoping to get it set up within the next year, maybe 18 months.”
Qualifications: The Level 2 NVQ Certificate in Glass Processing (QCF) and the Level 3 NVQ Diploma in Glass Processing (QCF) are good starting points. Many education centres offer introductory courses in glassmaking, and some UK universities offer MA courses involving glassblowing. The Contemporary Glass Society (firstname.lastname@example.org) can provide more information on training.
Salary scale: Salaries for glassblowers at companies start at about £14,000, and can rise to more than £35,000 for more experienced artists.
Hours: Glassblowers at companies often work shifts, and may also need to work evenings and weekends in order to finish a commission.
Best thing: “The people I work with. Everyone who makes work for Peter is an artist in their own right. A lot of them are a bit nuts as well, so it’s great to be able to feed off that energy.”
Worst thing: “The heat, and the failure rate. Pieces break all the time – we lose so much work.”