Lawson Johnston, or the glass engraver extraordinaire

Lawson Johnston, or the glass engraver extraordinaire

By Antonia Filmer | 18 November, 2017
Philip Lawson Johnson engraving The John Walker special edition decanter.

As the Christmas lights shine over London luxury shopping comes to the fore, the Patrick Mavros Shop held an exhibition of African inspired silver jewellery and sculptures with a guest appearance by Philip Lawson Johnston (PLJ), glass engraver by appointment to HM Queen Elizabeth II.

PLJ was an unemployed artistic 20-year-old when his mother suggested that he and his brother Andy go and meet a glass engraver, hoping this would inspire them. This sealed both of their fates. The brothers picked up their skill as they went along and were a good counterpoint to each other. PLJ uses a dentist’s drill like a pen to engrave his designs into crystal or glass. The drill has a nib, technically known as a “burr”, made from diamond or stone, depending on the depth of effect required. The subject matter for designs is traditionally game birds, flowers and African wildlife but for the Mavros exhibition PLJ has introduced lobsters and crabs, shells, musical instruments, fruit and vegetables; the draughtsman like detail is what has earned him the reputation as one of the best engravers in the world. The profusion of designs cover glasses, bowls, vases, decanters and most beautiful of all crystal chunks with double sided engraving that give a mirror image and 3D effect to the engraving.  These iceberg like chunks, called ‘cullet’, are pieces taken from what remains in the glass furnace once it has cooled; Andy bought around half a ton of this cullet in the 1980’s from a closed glass company, Whitefriars, this is now stored in Scotland and PLJ’s studio in Oxford. Today most of the glass comes from Poland with crystal from the Czech Republic, Portugal and Dartington in UK. The engraving is done under running water to wash away the dust and keep it cool. 

Examples of the fine engraving of lily flower, peacock, salmon, and elephant on crystal.

Most of PLJ’s work is special commissions, for individuals, institutions, and companies such as Johnny Walker Whisky. He has spent a fair amount of time in China, on one of several Johnny Walker mobile workbenches, engraving decanters with Scottish and local scenes for The John Walker, the master signature blended whisky, which command a staggering price. This week PLJ is the artist in residence in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, adding to the special editions that already number over 430 for The John Walker.

When not working in the solitary confinement of his studio, PLJ enjoys the experience of playing the guitar and singing in his local church, even finding the time to publish seventeen albums of his own songs over 40 years. In turn this has led to a pro-bono engraving project at the Vanessa Grant School for Girls in Rongai- Kenya, where he engraved a vast window and set of doors. Continuing his family’s tradition PLJ’s nephew Giles has taken to the profession, his uncle saying proudly, “he is an excellent designer”; praise indeed from the maestro.

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