Terry Grimley meets studio glass pioneer Keith Cummings.
The development of studio glass over the last three decades has been an international phenomenon, but a little known aspect of it is how much of it has been rooted in the Black Country.
The pioneering glass course at Stourbridge Art College, moved wholesale to Wolverhampton in 1989 when it was incorporated into the university there, attracted an increasingly international student base. Contemporary glass hotspots as far away as Sydney and Shanghai can trace important influences back to it.
Now these connections are being put on display in an exhibition, Glass Routes, which opens at Bilston Craft Gallery tomorrow as part of the International Festival of Glass.
It is built around the work of Prof Keith Cummings, a respected glass-maker in his own right and the author of several influential books on glass techniques and history.
He began teaching on the Stourbridge course in 1967 and later became its head, a position from which he stepped down in 1995 to become head of research. Now 68, he still puts in half a day a fortnight to supervise PhD students. His career has given him an overview of virtually the whole history of studio glass in Britain.
He recalls that when he first started teaching at Stourbridge the college was already broadening its technical base, expanding from traditional glassblowing to the kiln-forming techniques on which he has concentrated in his own work.
“Because furnaces were so big they only happened in factories,” he explains. “In the factories you had designers who made drawings and workers who made the glass, so there was that bifurcation between them. The unions were so powerful that if you were a designer you were not allowed to touch hot glass.
“In the early 1960s the Americans, who did not have that system, developed a small portable furnace so you could work glass in a studio. Sam Herman came over and spread it around.”
He cites his friend and former colleague, George Eliot, as arguably Britain’s first studio glassmaker.
“George was trained as a designer and worked for Whitefriars in London. He got one of these small furnaces and made the move from designer to designer-maker.”
Meanwhile, a reorganisation of art education in the mid-1960s brought it into line with degree courses and a notion of liberal education: “To put it crudely, it went from an education in glass to an education through glass.”
At the end of the 1980s art courses were integrated into the polytechnics, leading to the Stourbridge course packing up and moving to Wolverhampton. A few years later the polytechnics were transformed into universities.
“In an art school the top qualification was a BA. You could go on to the Royal College and do an MA, but that was it. When arts schools were absorbed into the polys and they became universities you could have MAs and PhDs. For a few years in the 1980s I had split my time between Stourbridge and the Royal College, so because I had experience of that they made me head of research.”
The next development was the drive towards universities to become self-funding by recruiting overseas students. It may have been a penny-pinching initiative from the government of the day, but it had the effect of opening up the influence of Wolverhampton’s glass course to the world.
Now Wolverhampton’s alumni are to be found everywhere. They include the proprietor of a major glass gallery in Sydney who set up the glass course at the university there and a former ceramicist who became head of glass at Shanghai University.
The connection with China came about in 2000, when the exhibition The New Glass Economy, organised by Andrew Brewerton, head of the faculty of art and design, was shown there.
“As a direct result of that students were sent over here,” says Cummings. “China has a terrific manufacturing base – as we know, they make everything there – and it has glass factories, but their creative take on the material was not greatly individual.
“Individuality was not encouraged under Mao, but the students we get now are more attuned to it. We don’t have to explain to them that it’s OK to experiment.”
Devised with Stuart Garfoot, the current head of course, Glass Roots gives a flavour of the range of work coming out of Wolverhampton over the years.
“Stuart came up with the idea for this exhibition and there were lots of people we would have liked to include. We could have filled the NEC. It’s a selection over 40 years, from Dave Reekie who was a student in the early 1960s to current Chinese students who are in their 20s. We wanted to show that the kind of work produced in the 60s and 70s is not the same as work produced now. What we’ve tried to do is think about the way that glass evolves depending on society’s concerns. I’ve written a book on the history of glass and it flourishes at high points in usually world-leading societies.”
He points to the contrast between the first flowering of glass in ancient Egypt, where it was regarded as a precious material, to the second, in Rome, where it provided a practical means of storage and transportation.
As other peaks in the history of glass he identifies Venice at the height of its mercantile power, Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europe in the 20th and China in the 21st. After a lifetime working with glass, his fascination with its unique properties is evidently undiminished.
“One of the fascinating things about it is that most materials are compounds with little variation, but glass is a solution which can be mixed with other materials – for example, the ceramic-glass tiles on the outside of a space shuttle.
“The thing about kiln-formed glass is that people often say it doesn’t look like glass. Most of my pieces look as though they have been dug up or have been under the sea for years. If one thing has emerged in this exhibition, it’s variety.”
* Glass Routes is at Bilston Craft Gallery, Mount Pleasant, from tomorrow until Nov 15 (Tue, Thu 10am-4pm, Wed 10am-7pm, Fri 10am-1pm, Sat 11am-4pm.) Free