Glass is performance art (Thomas Phifer, architect)

I couldn’t agree more. Take a piece of distinct Bristol blue glass, or an 18th century air twist glass, for example. Glass is such a beautiful medium—organic even—that when cold and solid seems to retain a fluidity only achieved at high temperature.

I enjoy a wee dram of whisky from time to time. There’s nothing quite like drinking whisky from a finely-cut crystal glass. Taste and touch combining to enhance the overall sensory experience.

If I ever tune into Antiques Roadshow on BBC1, it’s with the hope that glassware expert Andy McConnell (right) might be on the show, and has found an interesting piece of glassware. His enthusiasm for all glass is infectious.

I lived in the West Midlands until two years ago, and knew that Stourbridge was one of the country’s most important glass making centers for centuries. It wasn’t until we moved to the northeast that I discovered just how important the glass industry was in this region since Anglo-Saxon times.

Last Friday, we decided to find out a lot more about glass making and visited the National Glass Centre (NGC), that was opened in October 1998 on the University of Sunderland’s Sir Tom Cowie campus at St Peter’s, on the banks of the River Wear opposite the Port of Sunderland.

So why did Sunderland become such an important center for glass making?

Well, you have to go back to AD 674 when Bishop Benedict Biscop sought help from craftsmen in Gaul to make windows for his newly-founded monastery, the remains of which are still seen in St Peter’s Church (with its original Anglo-Saxon tower) near the NGC. This was where one of Britain’s most famous scholars, the Venerable Bede, grew up.

Between AD 800 or so and 1615, glass making had all but ceased in the northeast. Then King James I banned the use of wood as a fuel for glass production. Given the plentiful supply of coal in the northeast, and that sailing ships coming from the Continent carried ballast in the form of quality sand, glass making was revived here, companies founded, and they prospered well into the 20th century. Sunderland became famous for Pyrex.

Most of the bottle and glassworks have disappeared, closed down, demolished.

But the remants of the industry continue to be washed up along the shore. At the end of August, Steph and I traveled to Seaham, south of Sunderland, to find sea glass on one of the beaches south of the town’s harbor.

Today, the National Glass Centre celebrates the history of glass making in Sunderland and along the Durham coast. When some of the glass makers closed down a couple of decades ago, craftsmen from those companies were hired at the NGC and today offer daily demonstrations of glass-blowing and the like in its workshops, one of which we enjoyed watching after lunch.

Exhibitions are mounted in the main gallery on the upper entrance level. And at the time of our visit, there was a display of many of the pieces that have emanated from the studios of Neil Wilkin and Rachael Woodman. Such remarkable artistry, use of color. I was blown away, if you’ll pardon the pun. Pieces are also offered for sale, with the smallest and cheapest being merely expensive (£1800) to other larger pieces beyond my pay grade, several times over. They are remarkably beautiful. Here is just a small selection of the pieces on display.


We opted to take the Tyne and Wear Metro to Sunderland, changing lines (from yellow to green) at Monument on the outward journey, and Heworth on the return.

Our closest station, Northumberland Park is just a few minutes’ walk from home. St Peter’s at the other end is just over half a mile (and 10 minutes) from the NGC.

Nothing could have been more convenient, and much less hassle than driving there.

It was about 45 minutes or so each way, and on the return journey I managed to snap the Tyne bridges in the afternoon sunlight.


 

 

A ‘heavenly’ icon of the North

Viewed by thousands of motorists every day as they head into Newcastle upon Tyne or further north on the A1, the iconic Angel of the North spreads its (her?) welcoming wings on the southern outskirts of Gateshead. It was commissioned by Gateshead Council, and erected in February 1998.

Designed by British sculptor Sir Antony Gormley¹(who also created Another Place of 100 iron figures on the beach at Crosby near Liverpool), the Angel of the North stands over 20 m tall, and has a wingspan of 54 m. Overall, the Angel’s statistics are something to behold.

The construction details are also rather interesting.But why choose an angel as such an emblem for the North? Here’s what Antony Gormley said.

Driving north at 60-70 mph you only get a brief glimpse of the Angel off to the right, or a receding image in the rear-view mirror. So having seen the Penshaw Monument (just 8½ miles east) last Sunday, and with improving afternoon sunshine, we decided to grab the opportunity to view the Angel up close and personal. And we were not disappointed. It/She is a wonderful piece of sculpture of which Gateshead (and the Northeast) should be justifiably proud. So, if you’re headed towards the Northeast, don’t just drive by as we had for years, but leave the A1 at the A167 junction for Gateshead (map) and see for yourselves why this sculpture has become such a ‘heavenly’ icon. It’s well signposted.


¹ Antony Gormley website: http://www.antonygormley.com/