Peter Minson and the art of lampworking | Exhibition essay

“You get a rhythm about it”: Peter Minson and the art of lampworking

The Natural History Museum in London holds a model of a microscopic marine organism called Aulosphaera elegantissima Haeckel made in 1862 by the famous 19th century father and son German lampworkers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. Measuring just 22cm across, the model is around 500 times larger than the creature itself. With its beautiful and impossibly fragile radiating spines the Blaschka model brings together everything that has made lampworking – the process where glass is manipulated by hand using a concentrated flame, originally a lamp - one of the world’s most fascinating glass techniques.

The Blaschka model of the Aulosphaera e legantissima Haeckel, 1862. Image copyright of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum".

Several museums around the world hold collections of the Blaschka models. The Corning Museum of Glass in New York, USA even holds Rudolf Blaschka’s work bench. The Botanical Museum of Harvard University also holds a significant holding of Blaschka models called the Ware Collection, which Minson had the opportunity to study first hand in 1995 when he won a Churchill Fellowship. To this day, he says, nobody really knows exactly how the father and son made their models as they kept their processes a well-guarded secret. But being able to examine the models did change the way Minson thought about his own work, especially the possibilities of assembling complex shapes from multiple parts. It also confirmed the rich connections between the sciences and the arts that is lampworking’s special heritage.

During the late 19th and early 20th century the work of the Blaschkas and other model makers was in high demand. Research into the natural sciences was expanding. Glass models were more practical and robust than traditional taxidermy. Lampworking skills were also needed for the production of scientific apparatus as well as an ever growing number of industrial components. Well into the 20th century an apprenticeship in scientific glass blowing offered a lifelong career, as did membership of a lampworking family business. Quite a few of our pioneering lampworking artists first trained as scientific glass blowers either in industry or through family connections.

Minson, one of the first artists to specialize in studio lampworking in Australia, learnt scientific glass blowing as a 16 year old apprentice at the Sydney based Minson Scientific Company which his grandfather James Minson established in Australia in the early 1930s to manufacture medical and scientific glassware. Minson’s father and uncle were also involved in the business, making him a third generation scientific glass blower.

Minson Scientific Company factory in Cascade Street, Paddington, Sydney around 1958-59. Photo courtesy of the artist.

As an employee of the factory one of Minson’s first jobs was to make test tubes from glass tubing: five hundred a day, hand blown by torch at the bench. “You get a rhythm about it”, said Minson, “it trained your eyes”.

This type of training built Minson’s intuitive feel for the material. Fellow lampworker Mark Eliott, who first learnt lampworking at the factory under Minson, described the whole process of making multiples by hand as a zen exercise where the mind and the body work seamlessly together. For Eliott, who recalls making 4000 dolphins for Greenpeace Australia from his own studio sometime in the late 1980s, the process brings an awareness that through each minute variation in this technical dance one can pay homage to the infinite complexity of the natural world.

Peter Minson working at the Minson Scientific Company, 1960.

Minson quickly moved into managerial roles within the company. By the early 70s, however, he was also experimenting with blowing his own creations in glass, having built a furnace in 1972 using information gathered from books. Minson recalls all this was based on trial and error. In the ensuing years some general practical guidance and inspiration came through a number of international touring glass exhibitions. Minson recalls seeing the American artist Bill Boysen blow glass during his Australian tour in 1974 1. Minson developed an ongoing friendship with designer Göran Wärff whom he first met when the then Kosta-Boda designer travelled to Australia in conjunction with the exhibition Adventure in Swedish Glass 2. Wärff, known for acknowledging the skills of master craftsmen, responded to Minson’s adventurous spirit. Minson, in turn, welcomed the chance to trade ideas with the designer. The connection later took Minson to Sweden to spend six months studying at the Orrefors Glass School.

Minson decommissioned his furnace in 1978 and turned to full-time lampworking. In addition to Minson and Eliott, fellow pioneer lampworkers at the time included Stan Melis, who had trained in Czechoslovakia and subsequently set up a lampworking studio in Sydney before moving to the glass workshop at the Jam Factory, Centre for Craft and Design, Adelaide in 1976; and Richard Clements, who had completed a five year apprenticeship in scientific glass blowing in London before migrating to Australia in 1970. Clements spent a brief period working with Minson, along with John Schunman and Philip Broadbelt. Clements, Schunman and Broadbelt subsequently established Argyle Glass in The Rocks, Sydney in 1972, one of the first workshops in Australia to give public lampworking demonstrations. Clements later established his own studio, Chameleon Glass, in Franklin, Tasmania.

The tradition of public lampworking demonstrations was given a boost, as was lampworking in general, with the Flame on Glass annual exhibitions at Kirra Galleries mounted between 2003 and 2017. The exhibitions, initiated through discussions between Australian lampworking artists Christian Arnold and Mark Eliott, and the gallery’s manager and curator Suzanne Brett, were one of the few events to exclusively feature lampworking. Minson and colleagues would set up outside the gallery and entertain the passing crowds in the Atrium of Melbourne’s Federation Square.

Minson’s early work fell into that wonderful mix of novelty and curios that has delighted the public imagination for centuries. Glass in the popular “façon de Venise”, or “after the Venetian fashion”, of the 16th and 17th century in Europe, for example, rejoiced in cleverly incorporating mythical creatures, miniature animals and graceful sylphs into designs for glass tableware. Maidens with upstretched arms formed the stems of goblets. Dragons and serpents twisted to form handles and rims. It was all pure entertainment. If you are wondering about the inclusion of sea horses, octopus tentacles, swans and naked ladies in Minson’s work the clues are here in these wonderful precedents.

Over the years Minson’s work expanded into traditional functional ware, sculptural pieces and small vessels. One side of Minson’s glass which is less well known is his collaborative work with other Australian artists. In 1982 he worked with mulit-media artist Joan Brassil for her work Strangers in the Landscape, first presented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney in 1983 and later purchased by the Orange Regional Gallery. In this work of three installations Brassil included three large hour glass forms made by Minson, one of which was combined with slumped glass by Sydney glass artist Maureen Cahill. The hour glass shapes worked well as a metaphor as Brassil explored the passage of time and associated changes in how landscape is perceived. 3

Joan Brassil, ‘Stranger in the Landscape’ 1983-1985, 2015, Cement, Copper, Copper slag, Ceramic brass mesh, Brass, Sand, Bark, organic matter, glass elements, Dimensions variable, Image courtesy Campbelltown City Council collection. Photo by Simon Hewson

Another collaboration, this time with Perth-based artist Donna Franklin for two installations Mycotroph (2010) and Systematic Network of Neo-liberalism (2015), with metal work contributed by Simone Hicks, examined the natural environment from a different perspective. Minson created glass receptacles in which Franklin cultured living fungi for the installations. Franklin used the combination of art and life sciences to question the ethics of recent developments in biotechnology. As the work emphasised the close connection between arts and sciences, Franklin noted that Minson’s artistic lineage as a third generation scientific lampworker was an essential element in its reading. 4

Systemic Network of Neo-liberalism, 2015, Donna Franklin in collaboration with Simone Hicks and Peter Minson. Recycled copper, borosilicate (laboratory glass), nutrients, Pycnoporus coccineus, Fusarium. Parasitic Hosts, 2021, Cullity Gallery, School of Design, The University of Western Australia. Image courtesy of the artist.

This year Minson was formally recognised by The Churchill Trust Board for his ongoing and outstanding contribution over many years to the work of the association which he had first come to know as a recipient of their fellowship in 1995, the one which took him to Harvard University to see the Blaschka models. The official citation noted he had been a dedicated member of the organisation’s ACT Committee “for longer than our records show”. The same sentiment applies to the longevity and significance of his contribution to Australian lampworking.

Written by Nola Anderson.

Nola is a scholar, writer, freelance consultant in the arts and museum sector and former assistant director at the Australian War Memorial.

Peter Minson's solo exhibition, You get a Rhythm about it is on display at Craft ACT from 3 February - 19 March 2022. Find out more here.

1 In 1974 Bill Boysen, from the University of Illinois, toured his mobile workshop to New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT.
2 Adventure in Swedish Glass: 16 artists from Kosta-Boda and Orrefors, an exhibition rom Svenska Slöjdföreningne, the Swedish Society for Industrial Design, 1975, Australian Gallery Director’s Conference.
3 Brassil, Rita Joan. "The poetic vision." (1991).
4 Franklin, Donna. Meaningful Encounters: Creating a multi-method site for interacting with nonhuman life through bioarts praxis. (2014).