Ian Shearman's team of glassblowers are still making glass using a technique that's 2,000 years old. Mary Miers found out how it's done.
Manmade glass can be traced to 3,500BC, but, in the 1st century BC Phoenician glassworkers made a revolutionary discovery. Molten glass, they found, could be inflated, enabling them to hollow out glass vessels with air instead of shaping the interior by hand.
Recent decades have seen a revival of traditional glassblowing, mostly by artists producing one-off works generally termed ‘studio glass’. Decorative objects of a more practical nature, such as tableware, jewellery, Christmas-tree baubles and stained-glass panels, are produced by Bath Aqua Glass.
The company was founded in 1996 to continue the skills of making free-blown (as opposed to mould-blown) glass objects. It now has two shops and runs daily studio demonstrations, many of its designs reflecting the influence of Roman vessels.
Senior glassblower Ian Shearman manages the ‘hot floor’. Taking a pre-heated blowing iron or ‘pontil’ – hence ‘plenty of irons in the fire’ (although, nowadays, they’re actually stainless steel) – he dips it into a pot of molten glass in a furnace and extracts a blob known as a ‘gather’.
Turning it all the while, he adds coloured glass chips and powder before placing it into a hotter furnace known as a ‘glory hole’ to melt the colours into the glass.
He then shapes the piece using breath, tools and gravity. The glass is cooled slowly, in a kiln known as a ‘lehr’, to avoid cracking .
Maker and assistants Harry Wet and Peter Hamblin work in balletic harmony as they gather, place and shape this magical material.
‘Good teamwork is essential,’ says Mr Shearman. When adding parts, your assistant needs to bring you the right bit at the right time.
‘If you’re making a goblet and halfway through something goes wrong, often you simply can’t fix it — you just have to sling it into the bosh bucket for recycling and start again.’
Find out more about Ian Shearman and his team at www.bathaquaglass.com
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