three hundred years of collectable glass in one day

The Cambridge Glass Fair

An interview with
Lesley Pyke

Lesley Pyke, an accomplished engraver, has exhibited at the fair for a couple of years now. It has been noticeable that more women are now establishing careers in art glass and Lesley's versatility allows her to turn her hand to engraving on just about any item requested from bowls to patio doors. Lesley has had quite an unconventional route into the British art glass world and her interview shows what you can achieve with perseverance and inspiration.

For further details and links on Lesley click here.

lesley pyke showing one of her bowls engraved with fish.
Lesley Pyke showing one of her bowls engraved with fish

How and when did you start working with glass?

I was born in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1962, into a very artistic family, and I began painting on commission when I was still at school. However, it all changed one day in 1983, when I was captivated by an article in a South African craft magazine showing how a little flower had been "scratched" with a diamond point onto a drinking glass. I had not seen anything like it in my life. I had to know more!

Being in Zimbabwe, there were no fancy hobby stores to go and buy the necessary equipment from, and so began the quest. I was very lucky as I stumbled on a diamond pencil (small industrial diamond point) during a stock take at the laboratory supply company where I was working at the time. That afternoon, I tried my little scratched flower on a glass. I got tears in my eyes when I held it up to the light and watched it sparkle and change from negative to positive in a split second depending on its background. It was magical.

A friend offered to lend me a book about engraved glass, which had the Guild of Glass Engravers address at the back. I joined immediately as an overseas member. I was advised and encouraged constantly by a very dedicated overseas correspondent and purchasing every book, video and slide that the Guild office had for sale, I began to teach myself.

Rapidly, things went from strength to strength. I progressed from diamond point to a very old vibrotool I had found in a second hand shop, then to a cheap hobby drill I bought whilst on holiday in South Africa. By this time I was being asked to engrave personalised gifts for all sorts of occasions for friends and family. The tools were far from adequate for the amount I was using them, and they kept overheating, poor things! So, utterly determined to get it right, I took out my first ever overdraft to buy a Heavy Duty Flexible Drive Hanging Motor Dental Technician Drill with diamond stone and rubber burrs!

By then I had left my old job and had my 2 little sons, Shane and Gavin, and was engraving full time for customers at home in the spare room. We were lucky to have live- in staff in Zimbabwe, so I had a nanny for my children.

Demand increased and when companies wanted logos on hundreds of glasses, I got myself a basic sandblasting gun, compressor, computerised vinyl cutter, my first member of staff and began the sandblasting side of the business in a shed at the back of the house.

It was not easy to find glassware in the country, so I never kept stock. My customers brought their glass and crystal to me, sometimes straight out of their cupboard at home. If they had 2 glasses left from a set of 6,they could bring those two and I would engrave them for a wedding present, for example. I even had those awful brown coffee mugs to engrave once!! An old bottle from Fort Tuli was dug up, dating back to 1800 during pioneer days, and I had to engrave that to make up a small monument. Then again, people would visit England and bring back magnificent crystal for me to engrave, and that was always such a treat.

Why did you decide to work with glass rather than any other medium?

I think the answer is there already. It is the most alluring and baffling medium. I feel as though I am painting, except that the glass is the canvas, and the different burrs are the different colours. You paint in grey scale, with all the shades and textures you can imagine, depending on which type of burr is used and the size, shape, grit, pressure; whether is it used wet or dry, and the speed of the drill. The burrs themselves change characteristics and effects as they wear, and then after all that, the lighting dictates how it looks. It is 3D, especially when you have engraved around a whole vessel.

Are there any particular periods or styles that inspire you more than others?

Oh, yes, especially nowadays. I absolutely adore Art Nouveau colour overlay crystal, such as was produced by Daum, Galle, Rousseau, Lalique. Now that I am in this country and can phone up my glass blower in London who will make, to my specifications, lead crystal overlay bowls for example, which I will cameo engrave (carve through the layers of colour to expose the colour(s) underneath). I have only been able to appreciate this in the last 4 years that I have been here. I am still pinching myself; it seems like a dream.

What are your inspirations?

Maybe you could ask: "Who are my inspirations?"..I am inspired by a number of great engravers who I had only read about before and whose books I had studied. My first book was Glass Engraving by Jonathan Matcham and Peter Dreiser. My second, which was more specific to my methods, was "Drill Techniques" by Stuart and Shirley Palmer. I have been most fortunate to have met both Shirley Palmer and Peter Dreiser. What amazing, dedicated, talented people, who will always be like idols to me.

Another is the late John Hutton, who I greatly admire for his enormous feats, one of which is the screen of Saints and Angels in Coventry Cathedral. I would give my eye- teeth for a commission like that!!! It took many years and combined sandblasting and hand engraving with enormous flexible drive drills.

On my sandblasting side, I was nurtured and encouraged from afar, whilst stuck in Zimbabwe, by another wonderful engraver, Tony Gilliam, who I have also had the great privilege of meeting and I also heard him speak at one of our Guild conferences.

I would not be where I am today, if it were not for these members of the Guild of Glass Engravers. After all these years I am now honoured to be serving on the Council of the Guild and have the job of Overseas Correspondent.

Do you have any preferred subjects for your engraving?

As I have had to tackle just about every subject there is in the last 22 years, it is very difficult to say that any specific one is my favourite. I do love the freedom of nature, flowers and wildlife. Being in Africa, the big 5 and other wild animals were the most popular, then after a while it would be nice to have someone ask for a family crest for a change. I enjoy variety, I enjoy a challenge, and some customers most definitely give me that.

Which other artists have you worked with/alongside?

None. I have always worked alone on all creative aspects of my work. I cannot imagine any other way, as I am very independent and specific.

Are there any really special commissions that stand out in your mind?

My first big challenge stands out in my mind, when dear friends of mine asked me to hand engrave their 6 sliding doors which overlook the patio, swimming pool and tennis court at their fabulous home in Harare! I had only had my first big drill for a short time and still had so much to learn. It took months, and featured bamboo, mountains, birds and the sun, (which looks like the moon depending on the light). I was terrified, but they had loads of confidence in me. It helped me believe in myself and was a great lesson. After that I took on enormous design challenges in hotels and clubs in Harare: Aviators Arms at the Sheraton, The Beer Engine at the Best Western, Tipperaries nightclub, all of which involved a lot of research and design and many hours of hand engraving and sandblasting combined. The glass included doors, balustrades, windows, mirrors, and their promotional glassware for presentations, gifts prizes etc.

I have also been commissioned to engrave some memorable pieces for heads of state (Zimbabwe) and for Caltex Worldwide, a large corporation, a presentation to their President from Caltex Central Africa. Being a golfer, I have also had the privilege of meeting and engraving presentations for a few sporting greats: Nick Price (past world number 1 golfer), Bruce Grobbelaar (ex Liverpool goalkeeper but also excellent golfer) and I wonder if Ian Botham remembers being presented with one of my engraved glasses after his visit to Warren Hill Golf Club in Harare many years ago?

Do you have a favourite piece of work?

Yes. When I first arrived here, I did a weekend workshop at a college with tutors from the Guild of Glass Engravers, where for the first time I experienced cameo engraving, on a tiny piece of crystal overlay. This led to my first full lead crystal overlay bowl, on which I engraved waves and seagulls in a very free fashion all around it. I engraved it in the little dining room where I live, making an awful mess, (hats off to my partner Brian, for being so tolerant). I sold it for £600, and so began my new business in the UK. Engraving no longer takes place in the dining room as I have my workshop and showroom in an industrial park instead now?

Where have you exhibited your work? (Exhibitions, galleries etc)?

My first ever exhibition of my work was in the window of a little gallery/art shop, in Harare. Since then I have shown work at 3 of the Guild of Glass Engravers' national exhibitions.

Apart from that, I have placed work in only a few small galleries around the East of England. Presently I have work in Auricula Gallery in Ditchling, East Sussex.

As most of my work over the years has been on commission, I have not had much opportunity to create pieces for exhibition or pursue exhibiting possibilities.

Scale of pieces. Which are the largest and smallest pieces you have worked on?

Well, of course, the largest was the 6 sliding doors story mentioned above. At the other end of the scale, the smallest has been Austrian crystal jewellery. I had to put a bride and groom's initials on little heart earrings which were 5mm at their widest. I have a special clamp and 3 layers of magnification for this sort of job.

Who are the blanks blown by?

I use crystal and glass from anywhere, but my favourite blowers are Gill Mannings-Cox in Cornwall, and Patrick Stern in London .

Do you collect anything?

Yes, I suppose I do now I am in this country. Recently I have purchased a magnificent blank goblet, which Laurence Whistler designed and had made by Whitefriars in 1960. It was one of only 6 of that style. It was part of the remaining blanks from the estate of the late Laurence Whistler and his son the late Simon Whistler who had followed in his father's footsteps as a superb engraver. I also have a goblet which Peter Dreiser engraved in 1970. A small piece of Galle completes my tiny little collection! .I have only been here 4 years and there is nothing much to collect in Zimbabwe! Otherwise I collect books on Glass Engraving and Art.

What are the best and worst aspects of being a glass engraver?

Depends which hat I have on. I do the day-to-day orders: name on a glass for a granny's birthday followed by some doves, ribbons and flowers on a couple of flutes for a wedding, then a quick golfer on a tankard for a competition held "tomorrow". Then there is the serious customer who wants a lead crystal Tudor bowl weighing 6kgs hand engraved with a continuous story of their lives including their home, their dogs, their hobbies, their holiday, in a collage held together with ribbons of music! I love it!

Then, of course, I have to think of a variety of "gifty" things to have for sale in my showroom for those who need a quick present, and find the time to engrave them, and then there is the corporate company that want 165 glasses hand engraved and sandblasted in 2 weeks for their Long Service awards. Oh, yes, and then the Creative Artist Hat I need to put on as a professional engraver trying to climb the ladder of recognition. Masterpieces urgently required, crystal overlays to cameo engrave, exquisite creations I must come up with to hopefully be commended by the Fellows of the Guild for a higher status than "Craft Member" which I was awarded in 1990. Difficult to do in a hurry, but that is what I have to do. Then, of course, there is the running of the business, the books, the advertising, the quotes, the cleaning. ..

Therefore: the best aspect would be that I am never bored ; I have a huge variety of engraving to tackle. Nothing is ever the same, every day something different and I still learn as I go. I do not notice if it is hot/cold/raining or snowing outside,- it does not matter. I am very, very fortunate to be able to earn a living from what I love doing.

Then I suppose the worst aspect would be that there is not enough time in the day and it can sometimes be very lonely in my workshop!

What are the best and worst aspects of being an exhibitor?

Well, the best part of being an exhibitor is being with people, talking, chatting laughing, seeing the interest and the admiration that they can have for my efforts. It can be very flattering. Then it does not matter if they do not buy,- they have had a lot of pleasure just looking. I see their expression, the one that I had the first time I held my little glass with a flower scratched on it.

The worst part of being an exhibitor is packing up the glasses, piling into the car, driving long distances, unpacking and setting up, packing up again, driving back, unpacking and setting up the showroom again, which is usually a good opportunity to dust the displays first! But it is all worth it!

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