While travelling home to Kilkenny one evening, master glass blower Keith Leadbetter had a brainwave. He and his wife, Kathleen, should set up their own glass studio at home.
Having trained as a master blower at Sweden’s celebrated School of Glass in Orrefors, Keith was brought in by NCAD to help establish their hot glass department in the mid-1970s. A few years later, however, he was saying goodbye to the commute, as the couple set about converting their roomy Dutch barn into a glass studio. Taking its name from a neighbouring abbey, Jerpoint Glass opened in Stoneyford in December 1979 and was quick to establish itself as a leader in dazzling handmade Irish glass.
On our visit, we arrived to a warm welcome from Kathleen, a self-taught artist who created Jerpoint’s signature colour palette, while her son Rory works in the studio. Seemingly effortlessly, he twists the molten glass collected from the furnace onto a blowpipe, leaning on a metal balustrade for balance, and uses controlled, even puffs of air to create shape, slowly and surely. The glass is turned constantly and evenly.
The studio is filled with esoteric tools: close by sits a wooden block, used for shaping; a metal prong named Jack, which is used to separate the finished piece from the pipe; and damp newspaper, used to guide the shape of the glass by hand.
Creativity runs deep within the Leadbetter clan, and today Jerpoint Glass is very much a family affair. All four children are now involved in the business, with Rory occasionally joined at glass making by brother Eoghan, a woodturner. Daughter Roisin, a painter, is involved with the gallery, while Sally co-ordinates the marketing: “Even now, having witnessed it on an almost daily basis for more than 35 years, it’s still enthralling to see flowing lava-like glass be transformed into a bowl or vessel.”
Now a household name, Jerpoint Glass is synonymous with Kilkenny’s craft heritage, as fostered by the influential Kilkenny Design Workshops, set up in 1965. “As children, we took the whole glassblowing studio at the back of the house for granted, as if everyone had one!” laughs Sally. “Many of our friends also had a pottery studio or painting studio at their houses, and it seemed completely normal.” Nicholas Mosse Ceramics, Cushendale Woollen Mills and Eamon Tobin Baskets can all be found in the locality.
Jerpoint’s latest collection is evocative of the cosmos, using flecks of gold and silver leaf, that Rory likens to “being airborne and looking down at all the lights on the landscape”. Kathleen explains, “This was a chance to break away from the range of glass that we make on a daily basis. It’s hard to control, as it blows away at the slightest chance, yet it gives a great effect.”
When you see the creations all together on the shelves of the shop adjoining the studio, you can’t help but be impressed. It becomes personal in more ways than one when you look closely and see the nuances of something unique, fashioned from hand. “Made by hand is our most closely held value, and something that we will never compromise on,” says Sally. “Each glass that is handmade tells a story, it has a history and a personality of its own.”
To try your hand at glass blowing, call into the Jerpoint Studio, Stoneyford, Co. Kilkenny, 10am-6pm.