Norman Ackroyd CBE RA — Engraving with Acid
On 13 December 2017 the seminal British etcher Norman Ackroyd joined us at Messums Wiltshire in our 13th century barn for a talk on his life and work, interviewed by curator Catherine Milner. The event was split into thirds: commencing with a short documentary by the BBC following a ‘day-in-the-life-of’ Ackroyd as part of their ‘What Do Artist’s Do All Day?’ series, with questions from Milner and the audience thereafter.
Ackroyd studied at Leeds College of Art until 1961 and then at the Royal College of Art until 1964. After his education he moved to New York during the 1970s for several months to work, following the migration of his artistic contemporaries from London and sincerely entertaining the possibility of a permanent relocation. He finally decided the cultural climate of New York was far too ‘hysterical’ for his mentality and, returning to the UK, rejected the modern art scene, choosing instead to follow his own path. Soon after his return he journeyed to the tip of the British Isles — the Orkney Islands — beginning an unofficial project which would see him chart over five-hundred viewpoints of the UK. He would sit on the cabins of fishing trawlers, sketch-book in hand, genuinely wanting to venture to those remote places, interested both in the artistic potential and geological rarity of these locations. Wanting to ‘squeeze out the essence of the place’, Ackroyd liked exploring as a pursuit in itself, enjoying the ‘bonus’ of subliminal subject matter and avidly sketching all that he saw in situ.
Now he lives and works in a restored industrial warehouse building in Bermondsey, where the BBC documentary team followed him from dusk till dawn over the course of a single day in 2013. When asked about his choice of profession he coyly replied, ‘It keeps me out of bother’ and further commented how fantastic it was to be able to engrave for a living — something which his family, historically all butchers in Leeds, thought most impossible. When asked about his central London base, at odds with the geography of his subject matter, Ackroyd explained he had lived in remote places throughout his life, taking ‘ages’ to get to one scene from the next. Milner suggested the call of the wild was part of an artistic journey rather than the main way of life. Agreeing, Ackroyd recalled the annual Christmas dinner at the Royal College which invites all of the academicians out of the mania of London and into its hallowed halls. Artists are, by demand of their profession monastic, and living in the capital gives Ackroyd access to social and artistic spheres, as well as the ability to draw back from them.
After the BBC film Milner drew the comparison between Ackroyd’s work and the cookery process. He agreed, stating that 90% of cooking is about having great ingredients and it is the same with etching. He professed to working in thousands of various black inks, ‘self-indulgently’ making his own out of burnt natural materials such as bone and peach stone; all offering slightly different colours and textures. Just like a kitchen his workshop is meticulously clean, with the risk of contamination otherwise too great — affording yet another comparison with the family tradition of butchery. Etching with a copperplate can take three to four days of solid work and requires bewitching precision and experience. Ackroyd begins with delineating the reverse of the design on the plate aided by the reflection of a mirror. He described treating the plate like a painting, though one which needs absolute concentration, due to the ‘high-wire’ of working with acid. His etching presses, which have been passed on to him, are ‘two of the best in all of Europe’. The first, a ‘beautiful piece of engineering’, made at the time when etching was an industrial rather than artistic process, cost £400 in 1900 — which today would be equivalent to £52,000. The second is a smaller standard press, the ‘Volvo’ of the pair.
Ackroyd observed that his work is greatly influenced by the British Romantic Samuel Palmer, as well as the prolific printmaker Anthony Gross. He adores the ‘stopping-and-stilling’ mechanism of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s work saying that ‘time is like a butterfly when it is pinned down’ in his works. His greatest hero is Goya, naming the Los Caprichos series, as well as Picasso. Both were great draftsmen Ackroyd remarked, a quality seemingly lost within the teaching of the art schools today, which undervalue the importance and the necessity of skill and technique. An audience member questioned with Ackroyd thought his career would have been vastly different had he attended the Slade or Central St Martin’s, instead of the Royal College. ‘Life is a lottery’ he began his answer and concluded that he owed a great deal of his success to his Alma Mater. He would largely accredit this to Julian Trevelyan and the hands-off approach of members of staff, allowing him to ‘just get on with it’. This method fostered deeply different artists, his classmates as diverse as Peter Blake, David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield. A second attendee asked whether he was ever tempted to include the human figure. Ackroyd replied saying that he does, in fact, ‘do his scales’ of art making: drawing from life and well as still life drawing. But it is the traces — the resonance — of humanity that he prefers; the marks where we’ve been; the civilisations rather than the individuals.
Norman Ackroyd has etchings of Old Wardour Castle as well as Bitham Lake at Fonthill in our exhibition, ‘A Wessex Scene’, which is on display in the Long Gallery until 31 December 2017. The editions of these works are also available to order at Messums Wiltshire. He has artwork in national and international collections including the Tate, British Museum and National Gallery of Art. Ackroyd became the Professor of Etching at the University of the Arts in 1994 and was elected a Royal Academician in 1991. In 2000 he was made Senior Fellow, Royal College of Art and was awarded a CBE for services to engraving and painting in 2007.