By Val Baynton
This article, about the glass making history and techniques of Jonathan Harris, is extracted from a feature that appeared in the June 2004 issue of Collect It! magazine.
A Passion for Glass
Tucked away on the banks of the River Severn, in the midst of Ironbridge Gorge, is Jonathan Harris’s studio. Jonathan is without a doubt one of Britain’s most talented contemporary glass designers and the techniques and skills he uses to decorate glass are unique.
Jonathan’s passion for glass has been with him since he was eight years old when, helped by his father, he created a small glass bird. (His father, Michael Harris, was a master glassmaker who established Mdina Glass in Malta before setting up Isle of Wight Glass). Jonathan went on to study art and design, specialising in glass, at Stourbridge College of Art and here he first became interested in cold carving and decorating techniques.
During the 12 years or so Jonathan was at Isle of Wight Glass he learnt many facets of running a very successful art glass company – from organising production, gaining hands on experience of making pieces for sale as well as learning the administrative and business side of the operation and by 1992 he had been appointed managing director. Although grateful for this experience and training Jonathan increasingly found that there was very little time for him to actually design glass or to experiment and exploit the potential of surface decoration and so with great reluctance he left to set up his own studio in Shropshire close to the Black Country – one of the most traditional glass making areas of Britain. His brother, Tim, and mother, Elizabeth, continue to run the family business.
The Jonathan Harris Glass Studio
While searching for a location Jonathan and Alison fell in love with the picturesque and tranquil Ironbridge Gorge. They were thrilled to be given permission to establish the studio within the Coalport China Museum complex at this unique World Heritage Site.
Within Jonathan’s studio, hand skills and artistry are paramount, but there is a small amount of technology and this is highly advanced and very efficient. For example, the gas-fuelled furnaces are computer controlled to maintain optimum temperatures. Hot air from the furnace is recycled to minimise pollution and improve efficiency while the raw glass forming the core of every design is recycled lead crystal purchased from several different British manufacturers.
Jonathan’s ambition in setting up the studio was to work with very highly skilled craftsmen and glass makers, thus giving him creative freedom to develop ever more complex and intricate glass decorating techniques, combining different skills and approaches and constantly challenging established boundaries in glass design and manufacture.
Inspiration and Making Techniques
Jonathan’s passion and inordinate skill becomes clear when he talks about his designs and how he has created them. He is inspired by many sources, by the great glass designers and master makers such as Gallé, Tiffany and Frederick Carder, but also by the natural world and the landscapes of Shropshire, as well as by historical art styles of art nouveau, art deco and gothic.
Even the simplest of studio designs involve several coloured layers of glass, which are picked up and fused into the body of a vessel during the making and blowing process. When I visited the glass making team, they made this process look exceptionally easy, but a great deal of skill is required in keeping the molten lump of glass fluid, yet stable, whilst rolling and twisting it into specially prepared coloured powders and glass chips and reheating in the furnace or glory hole and repeating this process adding further colours and textures until the piece is ready to be blown into the required shape. One of the last layers to be added is precious metal – 24 carat gold or sterling silver – and then much care needs to be taken to ensure the metal does not burn away in the glory hole.
All glass blowing is done entirely without moulds – callipers are used to ensure standard sizes and dimensions but consistency is possible because of the glass makers’ skill. The free blowing and hand making techniques result in individual pieces every single time.
After making pieces ‘relax’ in an annealing oven at 440° centigrade so that all the stresses and strains are taken out of the glass and the temperatures within each piece can equalise before slowly cooling down to room temperature. This process is vital to avoid thermal shock and the piece cracking.
The base of each piece is now smoothed and hollowed out and Jonathan personally engraves the company name and adds his signature to the base of every single piece.
Most studio designs are not limited and examples are generally available to purchase from the Jonathan Harris Collectors Club, retailers or direct from the studio. Because of the manufacturing process every piece is unique although they conform to a general pattern. ‘Watergarden’ and ‘Wilderness’ are two successful collections, but ‘Blue Horizon’, inspired by the Shropshire landscape surrounding the Ironbridge Gorge, is the most popular design and has been in production ever since the studio opened in 2000. ‘Eventide’ is a new collection being produced this year.
Prices for studio designs start at £34.50 for an ‘Everglade’ paperweight. Whilst some of the limited edition Cameo and Graal pieces may cost well over £1,000, Jonathan is keen to ensure there is something for every collector – the versatility of glass as a material means that a huge variety of designs ranging in complexity and, therefore, in price can be produced.
Cameo and Reheat Cameo
Whilst studying at Stourbridge Jonathan was introduced to the historic cold glass decorating techniques of Cameo carving and Graal. He has developed both processes and has combined the methods resulting in innovative and fabulous surface decorations.
For this process the glass makers creates the shape of a vessel according to Jonathan’s design. They work in several layers of enamel colour – the use of 10 or 12 layers is not uncommon – as well as incorporating trails and loops of colours that will create undulations such as the distant hills and valleys on the ‘Summer Landscape Vase’ and the lake on the ‘Winter Landscape Vase’. Finally layers of gold or silver are added. Once the piece is cold Jonathan carves through the layers to build up the designs and images so that a three-dimensional relief or cameo design is obtained. The edges of the design can clearly be felt and the surface is dry and matt in appearance.
Some cameo designs are returned to the furnace and reheated to 800-900° centigrade to soften the edges and to achieve a translucent undulating effect to the whole design. The finished result is shiny and glassy and the surface is smooth to the touch. The risk involved in returning a piece to the furnace once Jonathan has spent hours and hours carving through the layers is enormous and disasters can occur resulting in the vase ending up in several hundreds of pieces. Jonathan closely supervises the stressful reheating process, watching and directing the glass maker as he undertakes this daring and innovative technique. Many glass makers and designers would not perform this potentially foolhardy step, but Jonathan is content to undertake the challenge because “this is the nature of experimental work and only by going into the unknown can new areas be established”.
Graal is similar to cameo in that cold carving through layers is part of the process, but the essential difference is that the shape of the final piece is not established prior to carving. Instead the team makes a small thick cup shape combining several layers of colour and gilding with multiple layers of gold or silver leaf.
As with all cameo and Graal designs Jonathan carves the design into the cup shape over several hours using tools such as fine diamond burrs and high pressure jets of air mixed with sand to engrave and cut through the coloured layers to reveal a complex relief scene. The cup is slowly reheated to around 500° centigrade. Using another blowing iron a disc of glass – of the same diameter as the cup – is gently fused to the open end of the cup forming a lid so that a bubble of air is captured inside. The two pieces are gradually heated in the glory hole to around 1000° centigrade. During the heating process the relief nature of the carving disappears as the edges and layers slowly fuse together and the image gently softens and distorts. The piece is then carefully blown to the required shape, such as a goblet or vase, and this twists and stretches the image further creating a very soft and fluid pattern. Jonathan carefully directs the reheating process because as the pattern develops he often decides to alter the finished shape.
Finished Graal items have a smooth surface – all the sharp edges have gone – and it can either be shiny, or more commonly, a matt iridised finish obtained by spraying with a solution of tin.
The Graal technique originated in Sweden at the beginning of the 20th century as a method of capturing layers of colour between clear glass, but Jonathan has taken it to new levels and is the first designer to have incorporated multiple layers of colours, silver and gold into the designs.
Cameo and Graal collections are all issued in low numbered limited editions, typically of 25 or 50 but every piece is unique. Typically there is a waiting time of 12 to 18 months to supply one of the Cameo or Graal vases.
Jonathan has many ideas to explore and develop but in the short term he wants to refine and consolidate his cameo and Graal techniques. “I want to ensure both technical and artistic excellence in all that I do, I am passionate about craftsmanship and technology and so I am always looking for ways to combine and exploit these two assets so that I can create outstanding glass designs.” Both he and Alison are very aware of the length of time collectors have to wait to receive a reserved vase and they want to reduce this delay if at all possible without compromising standards.
Whatever Jonathan ends up doing, it is certain to be technically breathtaking as he strives to take glass making to its ultimate limit while the designs will be artistically brilliant and unlike anything that has been created before.
How to Find Glass Made by Jonathan Harris Glass
Visit Jonathan’s Website for full details about how to get to Jonathan’s studio. www.jhstudioglass.com
Jonathan Harris is a regular exhibitor at the National Glass Collectors and you can usually find plenty of examples of his work featured in our Preview Gallery.
About the Author
Val Baynton is a former curator of Royal Doulton and is now a freelance writer specialising in ceramics and glass.
Please note that the content of this article is the sole intellectual property of the author. No reproduction or reference to the text of this article may be made without the express permission of the author.
Return to Glass Archive >>>