Robert Hesketh meets Somerset glass artist Will Shakespeare at his Taunton studio

PUBLISHED: 18:58 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013

Will's 'Nougat' range is inspired by beach pebbles

Will's 'Nougat' range is inspired by beach pebbles

Glass artist Will Shakspeare talks candidly about a life in glass and inspiration from the Somerset landscape. Working from a studio overlooking the River Tone in Taunton, Will Shakspeare is one of only a handful of professional glassblowers in Br...

Robert Hesketh meets Somerset glass artist Will Shakespeare at his Taunton studio

Will initially went to college to study ceramics and took glassblowing as a subsidiary part of his course. Since then, he's spent his entire career working with glass, first as a technician and tutor, after he graduated from West Surrey College of Art and Design, and later as a craftsman with his own workshop.

"It's a fascinating and seductive material and many things appealed to me about it," says Will. "Glass demands spontaneity and physicality. Once it's out of the furnace you either make something or you don't. It's one of the few materials you have to be proactive with. You can't stop; you must keep working and keep the glass hot. And, unlike ceramics, you can't hide anything with glass; it's transparent. The tolerances are less too."

Will's glassware is all hand-blown in his workshop in the centre of Taunton. Kate, his wife, takes care of the business side, including the attached shop and gallery, while Will concentrates on designing, making and finishing. He mainly uses traditional tools such as jacks and shears, which have remained essentially unchanged over the centuries.

Before the glass can be either blown or moulded by hand it must be heated in the gas-fired furnaces. Will gathers the molten material onto a pre-heated blowing iron, which has to be constantly rotated to maintain the shape and consistency of the glass. Coloured glass chips, powders or hot glass trails are then added, if desired, by rolling the molten glass over them on a bench. They are then moulded or blown into the finished item. Once completed, the glass item must be cooled slowly and steadily over several hours in an annealer to prevent cracking. After this, it is ready for grinding or sandblasting and finishing, giving a variety of textures.

The scope for invention and innovation in both colour and form is huge. Will's work is enormously varied, ranging from jewellery and pendants, to bowls, dishes, glasses, goblets, bottles, vases and clocks. His tableaux, hot-cast straight from the furnace, are an ongoing passion and were first suggested to his imagination by rippling water in rock pools.

"Landscape and water are strong influences. The River Parrett and the Levels are particular favourites of mine, so are the rocks at Kilve Beach"

Sometimes Will works on larger pieces, including glass panels, bookshelves and fountains. One of his largest projects, a commission, was an altar with accompanying tabernacle, aumbrey, candelabra and gospel stand, for St Peter's Church in Plymouth, in neighbouring Devon.

"You never finish learning with glass," continues Will. "Each piece is different. You look back at what you used to make and it's changed. What you're looking for is to move forward. I don't see my future work as evolving into something else; I see it rather as a natural progression."

Characterised by vivid, flowing colours as well as strong and distinctive forms, Will's work is inspired by many sources. "You never know what takes off and sparks an idea. I love photography and take thousands of photographs, but I don't use them directly, they get abstracted into the work, which is non-figurative, so the patterns come from different things. For instance, fireworks at a display I saw set off a train of ideas and influenced a whole range of work.

"It all goes into the melting pot. I never measure anything, so all my ranges are very fluid, constantly moving. Landscape and water are strong influences. I canoe a lot and am fascinated by reflections. I'm always trying to work that into my glass. The River Parrett and the Levels are particular favourites of mine, so are the rocks at Kilve Beach, which suggested another range of glasswork, whilst my range 'Nougat' comes from beach pebbles.

"Glass is a fluid medium. We re-melt ready-made glass, which, like all glasses, is basically soda, lime and silica - but the chemical compositions and particular qualities of different glasses vary hugely. I use recycled Dartington lead glass at the moment, recycling everything possible.

"I'm very lucky because I'm in a position where I can to some extent make what I want, which is always something different. I don't want to do the same thing day in and day out. It would make the workshop a production line. If I stop enjoying making any designs, I drop them. It's the variation I enjoy. One minute making a delicate perfume bottle and the next a goblet, a bowl or a large wall-mounted design.

"I gain satisfaction from a huge variety of things in my work: designing, seeing things go well; two colours that spark off each other; an appreciative customer. Overall, the most satisfying thing is living off my wits, living my life as a craftsman. Customers don't have to buy glass; they only do so if they like it enough.

"I make work that I hope people want to buy and use. It's a satisfaction to know that people use it, drinking out of the goblets or throwing their change into a bowl at the end of the day; they put it in their houses where it becomes part of the fabric of their daily lives. I like things to be used, to be functional, but having nice things around does alter the quality of your life. We all need things that give security and enjoyment. I think people get wound up about glasswork being special. It's just a piece of glass. If you don't enjoy it, it's pointless having it. As a glassmaker, you want to make something people enjoy and that's the end of it." BY ROBERT HESKETH

The gallery at Shakspeare Glass, Riverside Place, Taunton, is open Tuesday to Saturday 10am-5pm, Will's work can also be seen at galleries all over the county, including The Somerset Guild of Craftsmen, Somerton; the 303 Gallery, Martock; and the Creative Glass Guild, Bristol.

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