Not your average expat
Is this Hungary’s last master glass-blower?
“There are not many true master glass-blowers left in Hungary,” James explains. “One of the last, László Kriska, died last year. You could put a drawing of anything in front of him and he could make it. Now, I am probably the only one in Hungary able to do that. I have a good friend, Gergely Pattantyus, who also has his own furnace, melts his own glass and makes wonderful objects, but we are pretty much alone in this area.”
James studied glass making in Sunderland alongside playing in a punk band, after which he established a glass workshop in London in 1993. There, he fashioned glass door handles for high-class shops in Chelsea. “I also got chased by all sorts of people: interior designers, people involved in restoration and in antiques,” he says.
It was in 1998 that James first came to Hungary, to a glass symposium in Tokod, where he met Bernadett Hegyvári, who would later become his wife. After she moved to London, they worked together in James’s workshop, until in 2008 they decided to try to establish themselves in Hungary.
“At that time there was still plenty of glass making in Hungary, but in the time I’ve been here that’s pretty much all disappeared,” says James. “In Salgótarján they didn’t survive Covid and social distancing – you’re working continuously next to people. And then Ajka closed a couple of years ago.”
James and Bernadett spent months trying to find an ideal property in which to set up their workshop – and a home – scouring the villages outside the capital. “We needed somewhere without any neighbours too close by,” explains James. “Making glass is very noisy – the furnace, when it’s on, has to be on all night as well – and glass cutting is pretty loud, too.”
They were lucky enough to find a house with pig sties which they transformed to accommodate their Italian furnace, and to include an area for the sandblaster and lathes, alongside a room to display finished items, and Bernadett’s own workshop, among other workspaces.
“I’ve just turned the furnace off,” says James. “It’s 35, 40 degrees out here but when the furnace is on it can be 55 degrees in the workshop. Usually, when the furnace is going, I work every day and I’m up two or three times in the night to see to it, and to adjust the kilns. It’s really intense. So I work for two weeks and then switch it off and have a break for a couple of weeks. That’s my basic work pattern but I’ve been working non-stop now for four months.”
It transpires that the commissions James has been fulfilling have come from the Budai Vár (the Buda Castle) and the Opera House – currently closed for renovations. He has been making glass lights for the huge brass chandeliers which will hang in the Opera House – but he brushes aside any suggestion that it is an honour to have been asked to complete these. “They don’t approach me directly,” he clarifies, “the work comes through middle-men. They don’t know it’s me doing it – they probably think there’s still a thriving glass-making industry in Hungary!” he laughs, “but actually, it’s only me who could do it.”
Another iconic Hungarian concern turned to James to produce blown bottles for its most exclusive product: Tokaji Essencia. “The Royal Tokaji company was looking to put their Essencia into a bottle that would differentiate it from normal wine. I designed a bottle based on the process of the wine dripping.”
Amid the buckets of glass off-cuts, the countless tools, the wooden moulds which need be kept under water, and the blow pipes, is a table of almost completed items: vases, colourful bottles and stoppers, and drinking glasses using the “pinching technique” invented by the 17th-century English glass maker, Ravenscroft. “I like to experiment with different techniques, with colour; I use copper leaf and silver leaf and silver nitrate but the materials are becoming increasingly expensive.”
“Normally, all these things would go to England,” says James, “but since Brexit the situation has become incredibly problematic. It’s caused a bureaucratic nightmare.”
Considering his undoubted success, it is maybe surprising that James sometimes thinks he would rather leave glass making and spend more time on his other passion. “When I switch the furnace off and I’ve got nothing to do, I’m making wooden sculptures,” he says, leading the way to an unfinished piece of work. “I always work with walnut – some of my pieces are in Budapest galleries.”
Asked why he would prefer this to glass-blowing, he explains: “Glass making is very hard work, the materials are expensive – just my gas bill for the last month will be about 400,000 forints and it’s difficult to make good quality glass in my old furnace. This piece of wood cost me just 1000 forints!
“But my future may be incredibly busy in front of the furnace,” he continues. “I work with the Szimultán Müvészeti Iskola in Budapest where I teach the students a crash course in glass-blowing. I’ve also been helping students at MoME and the Kisképző.
“Industrial glass making disappeared in England through the 60s, 70s and 80s until there was nothing left, and this was replaced by university programmes. Now there’s a thriving glass industry but it’s all done from workshops like mine.
“If Hungary wants to retain any glass making, it’s going to have to go through the same process. It’s going to have to change the education to not just teaching glass designers but teaching the people who can make the glass as well. Also, they need people who have business skills and can run a business profitably. The answer is to do this through the universities. There’s a – not a sense of panic exactly – but there’s a number of people looking at each other saying: it’s disappeared. What are we going to do about it?”
I ask James how he sees the next few years of his life.
“Some of my students are trying to set up a studio in Budapest,” he replies, “but it’s incredibly expensive. I’m trying to help them but they need some public funding. This is a goal for me in the next years – to set up a facility in Budapest. I feel a responsibility to do it.”
If James Carcass can realise this goal, he will hopefully not be Hungary’s last master glass-blower.
There was a time before 1989 when many Hungarians sought to start new lives in ‘the West’, and when the very idea of an expat community in Hungary was an as-yet unimagined concept. In 1982, when I arrived, there were fewer than a dozen British people living in the country.
In this series of articles, I’ll be looking at those who have come to Hungary to pursue much more ‘local’ Hungarian lives than the usual expat working in the capital for an international concern, and finding out what brought them – and what’s keeping them here…
Marion Merrick is the author of
“Now You See It, Now You Don’t” and “House of Cards”
and the website Budapest Retro