Glass Craft

By Charles Hopkins Published 12/8/2013 | Crafts

Without a murmur from the supposed guardians of Britain's heritage, some of the finest craft glass ever produced there -- in the late 19th century, when, for a while, the British led the world -- have within the past 25 years been sold and exported to America. How underserving, but how lucky, were the British in one gift that came the other way: from Sam Herman, the American who in 1967 set up at the Royal College of Art Britain's first courses in studio glass.

He had studied under Dominick Labino and Harvey Littleton, the pioneers who had developed the equipment and techniques with which the glass maker could work on his own. Any potter can do that. Hot glass is far more demanding. Traditionally, it had been handled by teams of craftsmen; the artist -- if he figured at all -- gave them directions. The 1990-ish masterpieces (rightly) credited to the legendary Emile Galle were physically made by his employees.

Labino and Littleton changed all this, and did it with a skill and artistry that make their names, in the world of glass, like those of Giotto, Masaccio and Titian rolled into one. Mr Herman has never achieved that status. But from his teaching sprang -- almost from nothing -- the lively school of British glass on show until March 7th in a sizeable and well-chosen retrospective at the Crafts Council gallery in London.

Not the whole school. The Glasshouse, set up by some of his pupils near Covent Garden in 1969, is still blowing glass; and its key figure then, Pauline Solven, now on her own, is still a leading glass maker. But techniques and ambitions have widened. Glass is not only blown. It can be cast, slumped (half-melted) in a kiln, cut, carved, engraved, polished, sand-blasted, etched, engraved, polished and more. It can be combined with other materials. It can be made into toothmugs, or panels, or sculpture.

This exhibition displays these tendencies, not least the way British glass craftsmen more and more aspire to the work and status of artists. The simplest scent bottles by David Taylor -- an early name from the Glasshouse, and still there -- could be used merely as such; the best are in museums. You could put apples in a bowl by Brian Blanthorn; much better to feast your eyes on it. A fine cut-and-polished piece by Stephen Proctor, displaying his debt to Czech artists, is pure abstract sculpture.

Cast or slumped glass, lending itself to scuptural forms, is now widely used. Colin Reid has for years brilliantly exploited the transparency and colour of glass as well as its form. One or two would-be artists, especially of the mixed-media tendency, achieve pretentious silliness -- and its predictable acclaim. Mercifully, this show of smallish pieces has not much room for them.