THERE’S a reason Britain’s National Glass Centre, currently celebrating its 21st year, is located in the North-East. As far back as 674AD, the first stained-glass window in the country was created here.

“Glass has not just been important to Sunderland for 21 years,” says Julia Stephenson, the centre’s Head of Arts. “There has been a relationship between glass and Sunderland for 1,345 years.”

Fast forward from that first window to the end of the 17th century and Sunderland had become a thriving centre for commercial glass manufacture – bottles, window glass and tableware. With readily available coal and sand brought to the region as ship’s ballast, it was the ideal area for glass production, which continued to grow through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

The Northern Echo:

The Wear glass making industry reached its height of production in the mid-19th century when the introduction of a new technique called pressing made mass production possible. Before this, glass making was highly labour intensive, and each piece had to be individually blown into shape. The new technique involved pressing molten glass into a mould and meant that glassware could be sold relatively cheaply and came within the range of ordinary people.

Two of the most successful glass making companies in the region were Hartley Wood, known for its production of sheet and coloured glass, and James A. Jobling & Co. Ltd., which having secured the patent rights for Pyrex glass in 1921, went on to produce 30 million pieces of glass per year and exported its products to 120 countries.

The Northern Echo:

As industrial glass making declined, artists began to explore how glass could be used in their work and in the 1950s, the Studio Glass Movement was born.

Sunderland already had both a strong historical relationship with glass and an established glass making industry, and in the late 1960s Charles Bray, from Sunderland Teacher Training College, was asked to teach a course on ceramic glazes and glass. As he didn’t know anything about the subject, he set out to learn from a former employee at Jobling who had turned to lecturing on the subject, and a lifetime passion was born.

Throughout the 60s and 70s, Bray worked with Sunderland’s glass industry to support the establishment of glass within the educational curriculum, eventually establishing a BA (Hons) course in 3D Design Glass with Ceramics.

The Northern Echo:

By the mid-1990s, the growing department at what was now the University of Sunderland became involved in the planning stages for the National Glass Centre. It was the first new cultural building to be funded with support from the National Lottery.

As for the building itself, an open architectural competition was won by recent graduate Andy Gollifer. His angular, largely transparent building, incorporating 3,250 square metres of clear glass, was built less than half a mile from the site where English glass making began.

The run-up to its opening wasn’t without incident, however. “We discovered that the floor of the glass gallery was still in transit from Italy and it became clear that it wouldn’t arrive until a week before the opening,” says Timandra Nichols, centre director from 1998-99. “We devised a plan to work backwards from the opening date, in shifts over 24 hours a day, so that we were able to fit out and install the inaugural exhibition Glass UK – a display of 130 pieces of British Studio Glass loaned from museums, artists and collectors - in time for the opening. We were ready with hours to spare and welcomed more than 1,000 people to the centre over the first weekend of opening.”

The Northern Echo:

The building incorporated excellent facilities for glass-making, a studio to demonstrate glass blowing to the visiting public, artist studio spaces, galleries, a shop, a café and spaces for corporate hire. It was officially opened by Prince Charles in October 1998 and has since gained an international reputation. Last year, it welcomed more than 224,000 visitors. Sunderland University took over the full governance of the centre in 2010 and students travel from all over the world to learn skills on the glass and ceramics courses.

“Twenty-one years ago, National Glass Centre opened to the public,” says Nichols. “It has been through many changes in its 21 years; but the fact that its existence is rooted in the glass heritage of Sunderland and that it has nurtured and continues to support and profile glass artists, ensures that its vision remains meaningful. Having passed through a turbulent youth at times, it has finally come of age.”

• To commemorate the anniversary, the exhibition NGC 21 celebrates Sunderland’s place in the international Studio Glass movement through a display of work by artists who have helped to forge Sunderland’s reputation as an international centre of excellence for glass. Until September 15.

  • To view the full programme and make a booking visit or call 0191-568-9700.
  • Entry and visitor parking are free.