National Glass Centre, Sunderland

When I first pulled up at the National Glass Centre I was a little concerned that I had turned up at the wrong place. Sure, there was a great big sign above the entrance, but all the images I had seen online were of an impressive glass fronted building overlooking the river.

Once past the austere entrance, it became apparent I was in the correct place. The interior was bright and light. The reception staff were friendly and helpful, explaining the layout of the centre and informing me about the demonstrations that were taking place that day.

National Glass Centre entrance

I booked for two demonstrations; glass-blowing and lathe, each of which took around 30 minutes. The people conducting the demonstrations were knowledgable and entertaining. I found myself leaving with a new found appreciation of the level of skill involved in creating the objects, particularly the glass laboratory equipment, on the lathe, which I had never really considered before. There was a lot of sensory input from the demonstrations; talking, background noise, heat, smell and bright light, enough that the environment could be overwhelming to sensory sensitive people. However, the knowledge gained may outweigh the discomfort endured. Certainly I had always wondered what the tools were made from that are used to shape the hot glass. Never would I have guessed that the blocks were soaked cherry wood and the pads were wet newspaper.

N.B. There is an option to reserve and purchase the blown glass item that you watch being made. However, you need to be able to return to the centre to collect your purchase at a later date so that the glass has time to fully cool, and the finishing touches completed. Alternatively you can purchase a piece from the gift shop.

Between the two demonstrations I headed to the main gallery to view the current exhibition called No Strings. Work from seven international artists was on display which show unconventional ways of using glass beads. You can read more about No Strings at this blog post.

After the lathe demonstration I headed to The Glass Yard Cafe for lunch. As it was a sunny day I opted to sit outside, especially as I was still feeling rather warm from being in the studio with a face mask on. However, by the time the meal was completed I was feeling rather chilly, as the wind was blowing along the river from the sea. Definitely not a problem, I just need to take a jacket with me next time I visit. The food was incredibly good, freshly prepared and of a sufficient portion size. The price of the food was reasonable too, quarter pounder in brioche bun with fries and salad, mozzarella salad and two bottles of coca-cola cost £15. In fact, it was so good I forgot to take any photos of the food before I started to tuck in!

Once lunch was finished I headed along the outside of the building looking at the window displays along the edge of the gift shop. There were several Mats Jonasson designs which were nice to see in real life, rather than on a computer screen. Seeing the way the light reflects and refracts through the glass in person, enables you to get a much better sense of the artistry in the design. Inside there is a larger selection of glass to purchase, not just blown designs, but fused, lamp worked, jewellery and marbles. Other gifts and cards are also available, including a small selection of books.

The stair case, from the gift shop to the balcony, gives access to the galleries displaying student work and an interesting “Covid diary” expressed through the creation of a clay cup each day, plus access to the reading room. In addition to these, and the main gallery, the History of Sunderland Glass display is also on this floor. Had I realised that there was a section in the centre relating to the heritage aspect of Sunderland glass I would have visited long before now, however it is poorly advertised and if it were not for accidentally finding a reference to it online last week, I would not have known about it’s existence at all.

Sunderland Glass History Exhibit at National Glass Centre

The history of glass making in Sunderland is a comprehensive exhibit, starting from Roman glass through to modern day. There are large murals on each wall, one a timeline of glass making in Sunderland starting from 674AD, the other a selection of glass companies in relation to their placement along the River Wear. The main glass houses/companies are included on the wall mural. Although smaller glasshouses are missing, they were so prevalent and changed hands so frequently, it would not have been feasible to include them. Greener/Jobling/Pyrex, Matthew Turnbull, Hartley, Wood & Co and Ayres Quay Bottle Co. appear on the mural and have space dedicated to their history and products within the exhibition space.

Due to Covid restrictions some of the features were disabled, such as touch screen exhibits. Additionally, wired headphones were needed to listen to some of the recorded accounts of glass workers. However, I was very impressed with how much information was available in such a compact space. I particularly found the company timelines on the River Wear mural interesting, as I was able to confirm some of the information I suspected from my own research into Victorian Sunderland Glasshouses.

In all, I found the National Glass Centre a bright, clean, informative and friendly place to visit. Due to time constraints I was unable to visit the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art which is housed within the NGC, but I’m fine with that. It gives me an excuse to visit again soon. Not that I need one!

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