Passionate People, Passionate Places: the National Glass Centre

There’s something rather special about working in a building that people come from all over the world to visit.

The National Glass Centre is part of the University of Sunderland’s riverside campus and has been part of my professional life for a decade.

But here’s the thing; however often I step inside, I get the same heightened sensory experience.

Like everyone I’m hit by the heady scent of molten glass and white-hot furnaces which tell of the industrial past of this stretch of the River Wear – a time when ships were built and Pyrex was mass produced for every kitchen in the land. Today those distinctive smells mingle with wafts of coffee and baking from the centre’s café.

Then there’s the light which pours in as sky and river stretch out to the North Sea beyond the centre’s massive glass wall. Glass panels on the roof emphasise the effect.

Also visible on the opposite side of the river is the deep water dock of the Port of Sunderland offering temporary berth to huge container vessels and ships servicing the offshore energy fields. Sitting out on the walkway on the lower floor, there are always spectators fascinated by the loading and unloading, repairs and inspections.

Port staff and ship’s crews on the south bank are rewarded with the most iconic view of the glass centre itself – a futuristic ensemble of concrete, glass and metal seemingly carved into the hillside.

Built in 1998 on the site of a former shipyard, the centre was designed to accommodate a glass-making factory as well as a visitor attraction. Sadly within a few years, all commercial glass-making in Sunderland had gone. The building was acquired by the University of Sunderland and its meeting rooms, glass-making studios and hot shops began to welcome students, artists and visitors from all corners of the world.

Graeme Thompson
Graeme Thompson
(Image: Newcastle Chronicle)

It’s a reminder that students, academics and master craftsmen have been coming to this site since the 7th Century when Benedict Biscop invited glassmakers from France to work within the new Wearmouth monastery – also home to the Venerable Bede and the calligraphers who produced work such as the wondrous Codex Amiatinus, recently loaned from Florence to the British Library.

The full story – along with a history of glassmaking in Sunderland – is now on display in the Heritage Gallery on the upper floor of the centre. Directly behind, visible above the dramatic entry ramp, there’s a glimpse of St Peter’s Church, which survives as a reminder of the once great monastery.

Most of the 200,000 visitors who come to the centre each year are drawn to the spectacle of glassblowers and students producing vases, bowls and sculptures by breathing into a long metal pipe to shape molten glass.

In normal times there are three glass blowing demonstrations a day but because the hot shops are separated by a glass observation wall from the shop – where you can actually buy the glass produced in those studios – visitors are almost guaranteed to see glass blowing at any time.

There is something truly magical about watching molten glass metamorphise from a treacly, viscous, glowing orb into recognisable shapes and objects. Visitors are mesmerised as the glassblower reaches inside the furnace to gather layers of molten glass on the end of the blow pipe. You can feel the searing heat from the furnaces as the artist rolls the molten glass on a steel table to begin shaping. The glass then transfers on the pipe to be re-heated in the glory hole, all the while being deftly turned to keep it in constant motion.

This process is repeated many times as coloured glass granules are melted in to create swirls and patterns as the glass is rolled, shaped and blown by artists using moistened wads of old newspaper to handle the 1000-degree material.

The jeopardy of transferring the shaped glass to a second pipe or blowing too much air into the emerging vessel or failing to keep the temperature high enough to manipulate, make for thrilling drama. And it’s fun to see the glassblowers expertly work the crowds.

The centre is free to visit but people can pay to try their hand at making glass baubles in the run up to Christmas or decorative pumpkins at Halloween. It’s tradition that visiting dignitaries are encouraged to have a go at glass blowing and the media is full of images of everyone from Prime Ministers to Hollywood stars puffing their cheeks to inflate the molten bubble.

It’s also a place to see amazing art.

The National Glass Centre
The National Glass Centre
(Image: ©2016 David Allan – All Rights Reserved)

The airy contemporary gallery on the first floor has hosted the work of the planet’s most successful glass artists – including Erwin Eisch, Stanislav Libensky, Bertil Vallien and Ann Wolff.

It’s particularly thrilling to also see the work of artists who’ve graduated from – or taught at – the University of Sunderland’s renowned glass and ceramics course. Names like Erin Dickson, Colin Rennie and Jade Tapson. Currently the gallery is home to No Strings – an exhibition featuring the work of seven international artists working with glass beads in unconventional ways. Decorative beads are amongst the earliest artefacts produced by ancient glassmakers – dating back to the Egyptians.

This show brings the technique bang up to date by using beads to construct a dazzling array of pieces including an evening dress by Shige Fujishiro and an athletic beaded chicken by Felieke van der Leest.

Soon after the centre was shut down in March in response to the pandemic, No Strings was made available to visit online, introducing the centre to a whole new audience. The building is scheduled to re-open in the early autumn ahead of the new university term which will see students converge on Sunderland’s impressive studios and hot shops.

Funding for the National Glass Centre comes from the university and Arts Council England which invests via Sunderland Culture which programmes the building from its offices overlooking the café.

The centre also houses the prestigious Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art where you can see the work of photographers, painters, film-makers and sculptors. Student and staff work is also on display around the centre – and you can pick up extraordinary ornaments, jewellery, vases, plates and tiles at bargain prices.

The collection gallery includes glass art on loan from the world’s great museums such as the V&A and you learn those same museums collect art made by the master glass blowers and artists based at the centre in Sunderland.

There’s nowhere quite like the glass centre.

Sweden has its glass museum at Växjö and there are glass-making experiences to be had in the US at Corning, Seattle and Washington. But the mix of what’s on offer in Sunderland is unique.

And I can’t wait for it to re-open to once again experience the creative buzz and bustle of an iconic building teeming with artists and students, visitors and staff. The coffee’s great too.

Chronicle Live – Sunderland