‘Acid-free etch­ing is like al­co­hol-free beer’

Nor­man Ack­royd, Bri­tain’s best etcher, con­jures beauty from the harsh­est ma­te­ri­als. Mark Hud­son meets him

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - EXHIBITIONS -

En­ter­ing Nor­man Ack­royd’s stu­dio, hid­den away in a back­street near

Lon­don Bridge, I feel as though I’ve stum­bled on the scene of a crime. Blood-red spat­ter en­crusts the sink in the cor­ner and cov­ers the sur­round­ing wall. “Oh that,” says Ack­royd, when he catches my gaze. “It’s sed­i­ment of fer­ric chlo­ride.”

Ack­royd is, with­out ques­tion, Bri­tain’s lead­ing etcher – and a true mas­ter of his craft. Of all the ma­jor print­mak­ing pro­cesses, etch­ing has al­ways struck me not only as the no­blest (it is, af­ter all, the medium of Rem­brandt, Goya and Pi­casso) but also the most in­tractable and phys­i­cally risky.

“Peo­ple think of etch­ing as a two-di­men­sional medium,” says Ack­royd, who has been mak­ing prints in this stu­dio for the past 34 years. “But an etch­ing is a three-di­men­sional ob­ject: it’s the pa­per mould of a piece of cop­per that’s been vi­o­lated by acid. If you run your fin­gers over a Rem­brandt etch­ing, you can feel the ridges formed by the lines.”

Ack­royd has an un­canny abil­ity to con­jure, from this re­cal­ci­trant con­junc­tion of el­e­ments, ef­fects of breath­tak­ing sub­tlety and sen­si­tiv­ity. Del­i­cate veils of spray and wheel­ing flocks of seag­ulls bring a touch of the Wag­ne­r­ian sub­lime to his im­ages of the Bri­tish coast­line. Over the past four decades, he has found him­self drawn back, as if by com­pul­sion, to such ge­o­graph­i­cal ex­trem­i­ties as St Kilda, the Isle of Pavey and Malin Head. His tech­ni­cally master­ful prints of these dra­matic lo­ca­tions must rank among the most res­o­nant mod­ern Bri­tish land­scapes in any medium.

“I love the idea,” he says, in his dry, droll York­shire voice, “that out of some­thing as awk­ward as cop­per and acid, you can achieve some­thing in­cred­i­bly soft and lyri­cal, that’s as del­i­cate as wa­ter­colour.”

I first en­coun­tered Ack­royd, an ami­able ro­man­tic with craggy Mr Punch fea­tures, back in the mists of time, when he was teach­ing etch­ing at Winch­ester School of Art. With his rum­pled locks and pen­chant for bur­gundy suede waist­coats, he was a kind of rock-star lec­turer, a fig­ure of awe among the print­mak­ing crowd.

While he’s got a bit less hair these days, he doesn’t look so dif­fer­ent; it’s hard to be­lieve he turned 80 ear­lier this year. To mark the oc­ca­sion, York­shire Sculp­ture Park is host­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion of his etch­ings, The Fur­thest Lands, which chron­i­cles his stud­ies of the west­ern fringes of Bri­tain, from the far north of Scot­land to the Isles of Scilly.

I wish I could tell you I learned ev­ery­thing I know about print­mak­ing sit­ting at Ack­royd’s feet. In fact I was a feck­less 19-year-old, and hung around just long enough to feel my head swim­ming at the fact that ev­ery­thing in etch­ing has to be done in mirror im­age – and scraped in wax! – be­fore slink­ing back to my com­fort zone in the paint­ing depart­ment. I put it to Ack­royd that I was prob­a­bly his worst ever stu­dent, but he won’t con­cede even that dis­tinc­tion. “I’ve had no end of bad stu­dents,” he says grimly.

He crosses the stu­dio’s fag-buttspot­ted floor to show me a large etch­ing – 2½ft wide – called The Drovers’ Road, which cap­tures the end­lessly com­plex in­ter­play of sun­light through lay­ers of dense fo­liage on an an­cient cat­tle track on the North York Moors. As with many of his best works, the pic­ture con­veys the feel­ing of look­ing not just at light and space, but through time.

“A lot of the places I por­tray haven’t changed in a thou­sand years,” he says. “There’s a magic in the idea that you’re see­ing a place as the peo­ple who came be­fore saw it, whether it’s monks who built their monas­ter­ies on re­mote is­lands or the cat­tle­men who used this drove road for cen­turies.

“In 1990 I took a cot­tage, right be­side that road, with the wife and kids,” con­tin­ues Ack­royd, who is re­luc­tant to dis­cuss his fam­ily, di­vulging only that his two chil­dren are in their 30s and that he is now sin­gle. “Ev­ery morn­ing I’d run down it to the vil­lage to get the pa­per and a pint of milk, and it was just amaz­ing in the morn­ing sun­light. I thought: ‘I’ve got to record this.’”

He hap­pened to have a large piece of cop­per in his car, and he did the first state of the etch­ing in

‘I work with a whole pal­ette of acids, but I’ve still got all my eyes and fin­gers’

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