ARTIST CREATES GLASSWARE REFLECTING THE CHARACTER OF THE CORNISH COAST
Vivid blue bowls crowd the shelves of Malcolm Sutcliffe’s whitewashed studio in Penryn, Cornwall. In the far corner, a large furnace emits a fiery glow each time the door is opened.
Malcolm set up his studio in a former bakery 14 years ago. “I had been working in glass for more than 26 years when my artist wife Jean and I decided to relocate from Chesterfield where we had a studio to Penryn. In our youth, we both had summer holiday jobs in St Ives, getting engaged while we were there. We always hoped to live by the sea, and looked in Devon and Cornwall until we found this place.
“I always wanted to make things, and I became hooked on glass making in college. I got good technical training and discipline working in a small glass company, in terms of honing my skills, but it was not artistically satisfying,” he says. He wanted to be in full control of the whole process, from creating to selling. “I wanted to create a glass blowing studio with a gallery to display and sell the work in. It took a while to get established here but we have successfully done it now for 14 years which we are both delighted with.”
When they moved in, the building was in a terrible state. “It hadn’t been used as a bakery for 26 years, the windows were smashed and there was no water,” he says. “It took six months to get the furnace and studio up and running but we have never looked back.”
Since then, the sea and coastline have become an increasing inspiration for his art. The design of his seascape bowls and vases conveys a sense of movement and immersion. This is created through the vivid colours and textures he adds to the glass, and also by the shape of each vessel. His elegant Wavy Sea design reflects the white-tipped waves against the blue of the sea and the sky. The convex surface of the bowls brings the scene and patterns to life. It is as if they leap from the glass.
His designs range in size from dainty perfume bottles 4in (10cm) high to magnificent bowls measuring 19½in (50cm) in diameter.
Malcolm’s working day starts at 7am when he removes the previous day’s pieces from the ovens, and runs until 5pm when he finally lays down his blowing iron. The muffled ongoing rumble of the furnace is accompanied by the odd tinkling and pinging of small pieces of surplus glass as they cool and detach from the blowing irons. He is constantly on the move, deftly rotating, swinging and raising the blowing iron to his mouth to breathe into the vivid globule of molten glass at its end.
The furnace is used to heat the raw material, known as batch, to create the molten glass. This is 65 per cent silica sand, in pellet form. Inside the furnace is a brick box with a ceramic crucible, a container that can withstand extremely high temperatures.
Initially, it takes two days to get the temperature of the furnace up to the 1240°C required to create molten glass. It must be fired up slowly so as not to crack the crucible. The batch is shovelled into the furnace over the space of five hours. Doing this gradually helps achieve a better, more even melt.
After seven hours, the molten glass is as fluid as water. Malcolm then turns the furnace down, leaving it to reach its working temperature of 1055°C overnight. By the morning, the glass has the consistency of toffee and is ideal for working.
“The crucible holds 50kg of molten glass, which will last a week before I need to refill it,” he says.
Heating and cooling
In addition to the main furnace, there are two smaller ones, known as glory holes. The glass is returned to one of these frequently during the blowing process to soften and shape the vessel. Malcolm needs two to accommodate the different sized pieces he produces. He is able to produce only one or two of the largest bowls in a day. In the same time, he can make up to six smaller bowls.
The final element is the annealing oven. Annealing is a process whereby glass is heated then allowed to cool slowly. Doing this removes internal stresses and toughens the glass. “Everything I make has to be annealed,” says Malcolm. “As soon as I’ve finished blowing a piece, it goes in there at 500°C and stays at that temperature. At the end of the day, I set a programme timer that cools the oven slowly overnight, then the pieces come out in the morning. If they were left at room temperature to cool they would break.”
Creating the picture
To create one of his bowls, he begins with a blowing iron. This is a hollow tube of stainless steel with a nylon mouthpiece at one end. Opening the main furnace, he dips the bare end into the crucible of molten glass. It is rotated continuously so that the glass is collected evenly.
He now moves to his chair, as he needs to trundle the iron rod along the extended arm, causing the glass to rotate, gently shaping it. The small globule is placed inside a rounded hole in the centre ofa block he carved from cherry wood. “In many ways the surfaces and tools used are just as important as the glass,” he says. “For example, I use cherry wood because it doesn’t burn particularly quickly. It’s also close grained so it doesn’t mark the glass too much.”
The blocks are kept in water to remain damp. The water turns to steam when touched by the glass, lubricating the block so no marks or ash are left on the piece.
He now begins to add colour. A first layer of cerulean blue for the sky is gathered by dipping the piece into a bowl of powdered glass, which sticks to the hot surface. The glass is returned to the reheating furnace for a few seconds to soften so the powdered glass will adhere to it. A layer of white powder is then added to the blue. This will form the gentle cloud background of the design.
“To create a swirling sky effect, I throw water onto a table called a marver and spread it with my hand,” he says. “I twist the rod as the glass is run along the wet surface.”
The marver is made of thermal insulation to cope with the high temperatures. Malcolm saved it from a derelict science laboratory when he was a student. “As well as not catching fire, the material doesn’t take the heat from the glass like steel does,” he says.
Adding the white-tipped waves
After twisting it to his satisfaction, Malcolm returns the piece to the reheating furnace before a further layer of blue is added. More glass is gathered from the main furnace until the vessel resembles a light bulb in size, glowing red and orange. At this stage the colours underneath cannot be seen. The wave motif starts to be added with aqua-coloured powdered glass, Malcolm darting to and from the reheating furnace after each application. “I use a spoon to apply white granules because it allows a precise application of colour. These will become the wild crests of the waves when the bowl is blown. I’m trying to get a painterly quality, with the same feeling of depth,” he says.
The glass is blocked again using a slightly larger cherry wood mould, and is then ready to be blown. A burst of compressed air that comes from a gun dangling from the ceiling blasts the bottom to chill it. This is done to ensure the glass remains thicker at the base. Malcolm puts the rod to his mouth and blows steadily, expanding the bubble inside. The glass is returned to the glory hole after each blow. Now a tool known as a jack, which resembles a large pair of tweezers, is used to gradually score the rim closest to the blowing rod in preparation for its detachment. One of the jacks has cardboard tubes on its end, wet like the blocks so the glass is, as Malcolm explains, “riding on a cushion of steam”. A wad of damp newspaper is also used to manually shape the bowl.
If he wishes to create a more natural pointed shape, he swings the rod gently in a pendulum motion. “The idea is to make the glass do all of the work. All I am doing is gently coaxing it with the tools to get it to do what I want. Mainly I rely on heat and gravity and turning.”
Once the bowl is at the desired size, the glass is transferred to a punty. This is an iron rod whose name is believed to be derived from the French word pont meaning bridge. It is tipped with a wad of hot glass and attached to the bottom of the vessel to hold it while the top is finalised. Only a small aperture exists at the top where the blowing iron was attached. If this needs to be widened to create the rim of the bowl, Malcolm holds the piece close to the reheating furnace. Then he uses his jacks to slowly widen and shape the mouth. “It is a gradual process to open it out,” he says. “As soon as it is touched with cold wet tools it stops being malleable and needs to be reheated.” It can take at least 15 trips over 15 minutes to and from the kiln to shape the rim. It is during this stage that the final colours and patterns begin to emerge.
When the rim is smooth and at the right size, Malcolm chips off the punty rod and puts the bowl straight into the annealing oven to cool. When it comes out the following morning, it will have its punty mark – the ring-shaped scar on the base – ground off using a drill. Sometimes a piece will be sandblasted to enhance its colours and remove the reflections, depending on whether he feels the design will benefit from the glass having a matt or satin finish.
Once Malcolm has started making a piece, he has to see it through without pause. “There’s no stopping for a cup of tea. I can’t hang it up and have a think because it would crack and fall off of the blowing iron,” he says. “There’s a fluidity to the process and a spontaneity that would be lost if it was deliberated over in stages and I like that. Each piece is unique. Sometimes the colour has a mind of its own and will do what it wants. That is entirely natural and reflects the free blown nature of my work.”
Words: Eleanor Gaskarth Photography: Clive Doyle
The feature about Malcolm Sutcliffe's glassblowing studio originally appeared in the July / August 2015 issue of LandScape. For back issues click here or to subscribe to LandScape click here www.malcolm-sutcliffe.co.uk