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John Glenburn Airlie was born 12 February 1929 in Edinburgh to John and Catherine Airlie. He was educated at Trinity Primary School and Trinity Academy, which he left aged 15 with no formal qualifications. He was then apprenticed as an auto electrician before being called up to serve in the RAF in May 1947. John was discharged that December for 'ceasing to fulfil physical requirements'.
For the next 15 years, he worked in a variety of jobs: erecting TV aerials, window cleaning, logging, selling fruit , working as a ring groom in a circus, and as a guard on the railways. While working on the railways, he spent many a happy hour sitting in sidings with his sketch pad, keeping alive his interest in art. In 1962, he became a park keeper at Holyrood Park in Edinburgh and worked there until 1966.
In 1964, John began studying for formal qualifications with a view to his eventual entry into art college. He passed basic level examinations in English and art in 1965 and was awarded a grant to study for further qualifications that year. During 1966 and 1967, he passed sufficient higher level qualifications in English, art, history, modern studies and French to gain entry into Edinburgh College of Art, which he entered as one of its oldest students in 1968.
Although John initially expected to study sculpture, he was quickly drawn to the glass department, then headed by Helen Monro Turner assisted by John Lawrie and the department's technical brains, Ken Wainwright. John and Ken became firm friends and spent many a happy hour 'tinkering' in the furnace room.
John was eventually to make the development of a small-scale glass furnace the subject of his diploma thesis. While he was in the glass department, he met two part-time students who had also studied glass engraving under Helen Monro Turner: Norman Orr and Alison Kinnaird. John was to work in collaboration with both of them for some years thereafter.
During 1971, his graduation year, he set up a furnace based on his thesis and established Kirkhill Glass to produce small soda glass items. At the same time, he produced lead glass for engravers, some free-form glass sculptures and several sculptures in wood to commission.
Although Kirkhill Glass could have been a full-time occupation, John also studied for his teacher's diploma at Moray House in Edinburgh, graduating from there in 1972 and going straight to teach in the art department at Broughton High School in Edinburgh. He worked there until his retirement in 1981.
Despite John's teaching load, Kirkhill Glass thrived from 1971 until he was forced to close it in 1976 through physical disability.
Kirkhill Glass is noted for its sparkling blue colour, a by-product of the kiln design. Generally, pieces were never more than a few inches high, although some larger items were made to commission for Jenner's store in Edinburgh and for one of the major Scottish banks.
Some pieces were purchased for the V&A Museum's collection in London. His lead glass, produced either as free-form sculptures or for engraving, found its way into many public collections, including those in Edinburgh and Glasgow museums, The Royal Scottish Museum, and many important private collections. Sadly, most of the glass he produced at Edinburgh College of Art, all of it lead, was stolen from Dalkeith, Scotland, in the early 1970s and has never been recovered.
(From right to left) Ken Wainwright, John Airlie Jnr, John Airlie Snr, making Kirkhill Glass, March 1972
See a range of John Airlie's glass work here LINK
John Airlie's thesis is also published here LINK
©2008 Shiona Airlie
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