From butcher’s shop to the Royal Academy

Norman Ackroyd in the Shetlands. Below: The Drongs Escha Ness
Norman Ackroyd in the Shetlands. Below: The Drongs Escha Ness
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Leeds-born Norman Ackroyd’s moody etchings and aquatints are in galleries across the world. As he tells Sheena Hastings, history is an important element of his work.

NORMAN Ackroyd considers himself to be first and foremost a Yorkshireman but also a citizen of the ancient archipelago of islands that make up the British Isles.

The Drongs Escha Ness, by Norman Ackroyd

The Drongs Escha Ness, by Norman Ackroyd

Exploration of some of the smallest and furthermost outcrops of land as well as the rugged coastline of our mainland has provided grist to his creative mill for decades.

The history of those sometimes bleak places and how their inhabitants past and present have contributed to the story of Britain seems to come to life in the printmaking of this, one of the world’s most renowned exponents of the art.

For many years, the summer months have seen Ackroyd bobbing about in chartered boats, capturing in a series 
of drawing books in watercolour pencils the rain and sea-pelted cliffs, small forsaken islands and stacks of ancient stone that bravely face the elements. The acid used in creating images that burn with hulking energy or ghostly shapes caught as drizzled-upon ghosts mirrors the mightiness of Nature crashing and smashing, wearing away the visible shapes on the landscape.

There’s a heaving, romantic nature in all of his etchings, the lack of colour serving to underline simultaneously both the lonely and remote nature of each landscape and also the sensation that Nature often appears to be at war with itself.

These powerful prints come about after the Leeds-born artist has read up on the history of the places he is attempting to capture in his etchings. He talks to local people, perhaps hearing tales of long-lost island communities and dreadful losses at sea.

He then takes a couple of preparatory boat rides around the coastline, developing a feel for the elements, the light, the shapes and the imagined journeys made by those travelling the choppy waters over millennia.

After that he charters a boat for a week and gets on with capturing what he sees. He has made etchings of most of the west coast of the British Isles and Ireland in this way.

“I can handle a force five, six or seven gale,” says Ackroyd, who’s now 74. “I take an assistant, and we make some of the work right there on the boat with copperplates and saturated sugar solution which is pigmented black.

“This kind of ‘plein air’ work is very important to me. I work very wet, and probably fill the equivalent of a whole drawing book each day.

“Some of the images come out very abstract and free. I liken etching to a very beautiful piano. It needs no electrification. It’s a pure, solo voice... the intellect takes a back seat and the eye, hand and heart take over. In a sense I don’t know what I’m doing, as I just do it and know whether it’s right or wrong afterwards.

“When I make these images I am conscious of the eyes that have looked back and forth at these landscapes over time. There’s a great feeling of history about the process of etching, too, in that the same inks and many of the techniques have been used for centuries.”

Norman Ackroyd was born the son of a butcher in Hunslet, Leeds. The family lived over the shop, and as an 11-year-old he liked nothing better than to get on the tram to Leeds Art Gallery and spend the day there.

At Cockburn High School he already knew he wanted to pursue art and was pretty quickly given the keys to the art room and materials cupboard.

“I was good at academic subjects like maths,” says the artist, “but I knew when I was about 14 or 15 that I should be single-minded. My mum was very supportive, and although Dad couldn’t have cared less about art, he could see that I wasn’t lazy, that I was a worker.”

Ackroyd says he believes a lot of one’s success in life is about luck, and he was lucky enough to be encouraged by a series of gifted teachers, such as Norman Webster at Leeds College of Art and Royal College of Art tutor Julian Trevelyan.

Subsequently, as a lecturer at Central School of Arts and Crafts, he met the Canadian David Freed, who went on to become professor of etching at the University of Virginia, and the two later swapped jobs and homes for a period, enabling Ackroyd to make himself and his work known in America.

“Selling art wasn’t easy back then,” he says. “I had a dealer in London and another in Detroit, but it was all very hand to mouth. I taught two days a week – Central had a policy of having no full-time teachers, so we were all practitioners as well. But making yourself known was a long, slow process.”

In 1988 he was elected to the Royal Academy of Art and appointed Professor of Etching at the University of the Arts in 1994. He was elected senior fellow of the Royal College of Art in 2000.

Ackroyd‘s work from the 1960s shows his interest in Pop Art and Minimalism, but later it became much more simplified and abstract. In the 1980s he became a landscape artist. His work has been compared to that of JMW Turner. “I admire his late stuff, as he really was the first Impressionist,” says Ackroyd. “But to be honest I’m more interested in the stillness of Vermeer.” His love of etching is partly because it is what he calls a very democratic medium. When we speak he has just sold a painting for five figures, but an etching can be bought for £300 to £500.

His next outing for a concentrated burst of coastal print making will be the coast of Ireland’s County Donegal in summer 2013.

In the meantime, he is showing new work in Thirsk, alongside paintings by his son Simeon, etchings by close friend Ian Ritchie (fellow Royal Academician and world-renowned architect) and photos by Jocelyne Van den Bossche.

Shetland is a collection of 12 new etchings in the exhibition Norman Ackroyd, Family and Friends, which opens tomorrow at the Zillah Bell Gallery in Thirsk and runs until January 20.