‘Acid-free etching is like alcohol-free beer’
Norman Ackroyd, Britain’s best etcher, conjures beauty from the harshest materials. Mark Hudson meets him
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’