Timothy Harris on Glassmaking

Blog Image-2
As the eldest son of Michael Harris, one of the originators of the British Studio Glass Movement and co-founder of Mdina Glass in Malta and Isle of Wight Studio Glass, Timothy Harris received a double-edged legacy from his father. If he chose to become a glassmaker he would have ready access to a studio and a successful business – but there would also be the prospect of lifelong father-son comparison. However Timothy never wanted to do anything else apart from become a glassmaker. As a youngster he was attracted by the heat and smoke of the studio, and hung about during the summer holidays ‘being a pest’. By age 13, standing on a beer crate and assisted by his younger brother Jonathan (now also a leading glass designer), he was able to make small glass ‘Diddybirds’.

His aptitude for working with hot glass developed under his father’s tutelage, and after completing a college glassmaking course, in 1980 he returned to the Isle of Wight. Timothy was clearly exceptionally talented, and within a few years his technical innovation, commitment and attention to detail enabled him to take his place alongside the most respected designer-makers in Britain. A great accolade came when his father announced: “You are a better glassmaker than I’ll ever be.”

Following his father’s premature death in 1994, Timothy & Jonathan took over the reins of the studio. Jonathan moved on in 1999, and Timothy continued with Isle of Wight Glass until its closure in December 2012. When the family business closed down Timothy felt a keen sense of failure, “I was hugely disappointed, but circumstances change, and I realise you can’t hold on to something that has naturally reached its end. Perhaps five years ago we should have recognised things were not working and made the changes that we have now made. What I’ve learnt is the importance of staying in control, having a clear sense of direction and above all, keeping things as simple as you can.”

With backing from many quarters, Timothy was able to salvage much of what he wanted from the old company and start again. This meant taking a year out from glassmaking to build a new studio on the Arreton Barns Craft Village site. “Taking the year out to build the studio was an exciting time. I was constantly visualising the new studio in my mind’s eye, and looking forward to making glass in such a nice environment.”

Now, over nine months since commencing glassmaking in the new studio, Timothy reflects on his lifelong journey with the material he loves. “Being a glassmaker is fun and hugely enjoyable, particularly working with trusted colleagues in the team. I enjoy the creative aspects too. When an idea occurs to me, I let it lie for a while, then I pull it apart technically, breaking it down into steps from which I can approach making the piece. But when you take the gather from the furnace, all those ideas may be undone – the material is a viscous thing, continually evolving. As a technician I like to know why it does what it does and if I do something and something happens, I ask myself: ‘will it do the same thing next time?’ I like to be able to predict what will happen with the material. But if a piece wants to do something that I hadn’t planned but seems interesting, I will let things happen, although at the end of the day I do like to have the last word!”

What about when things don’t work out? “If I have a preconception about how a piece is going to turn out, but it doesn’t happen exactly as I want, there may be gems to discover along the way. So I mentally undo what I have done and work out the stage when it didn’t do what I wanted. Sometimes things are completely beyond my control, for instance colours can sometimes interact together in unpredictable ways. With certain designs it’s impossible to predict exactly where the colours are going to be – that’s the beauty of what we do. So if you’re making a range of items, they’re like people out of the same family, they are all different individuals in that family. Yes, sometimes a piece doesn’t work out how I want, but I see mistakes as stepping stones along the road to achieving what I do want or what I’m happy to accept.”

One of the mottos of Isle of Wight Studio Glass is: ‘Passionate about the art of glass’. Timothy says: “My passion is an absorption with the material and the limitless possibilities of what can be done with it. Every day I ask myself what the material is going to show me today! Whatever that is, I am going to be able to call on it on the next day, and on the day after that. It is totally absorbing, it has to be.”

Timothy still feels a burden of expectation as the son of his father. ”People do expect more of me because of who I am. But every piece of glass needs to be better than the last in whatever small detail. It has to be a happy piece of glass, a considered piece of glass, and that’s what sets it apart.”

Amongst the highlights of the year at Isle of Wight Studio Glass are the Collaboration Days, where Timothy works alongside other accomplished glassmakers. “These are great fun,” he says, “working with another glassmaker takes all the pressure off me, I can be the boy again. I can learn from them. I always try to work with someone who is better than me at least in some aspect of technique. Glassmakers are like sponges for ideas, sucking them in. Who would I most like to work with? Some American glass artists are very skilled at making very large pieces, and I would like to get a sus on that!”

The future? “To continue to be innovative and creative and to push the boundaries of what I am able to do with this material. At the end of the day that just means making beautiful pieces of glass and selling them for a reasonable price. If that happens, as far as I’m concerned everything is going along nicely!”