Norman Ackroyd interview: 'Acid-free etching is like alcohol-free beer'

Norman Ackroyd at his studio in Bermondsey, London
Norman Ackroyd at his studio in Bermondsey, London Credit: Rii Schroer

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.”

The Three Sisters, Dingle, an etching by Norman Ackroyd

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-butt-spotted 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.

Vale of York, from Sutton Bank, an etching by Norman Ackroyd

“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 situ using a so-called sugar-lift solution. “It’s saturated sugar mixed with black gouache paint so you can see what you’re doing,” he explains. “You draw or paint your image on to the plate. Then you roller over the whole thing with an acid-resisting ground.”

Back in London, Ackroyd put the plate in a bath of warm water, so that the sugar expanded and flaked off, leaving the areas he’d painted bare, before the plate was “etched” – exposed to acid. He pulls out the resulting first version of the print: it looks at first sight like an enormous photographic negative, matted black clusters of twigs and branches swarming around the white tree trunks and pathway.

“I wanted to get that tunnel-like feeling of the hollow-way, a path that’s been beaten into the ground over centuries,” he says. “But I didn’t want to put too much down first go, because it’s easier to add than to take away. With etching you have to think very precisely from the start. It’s got to be concise: there’s no room for waffle.”

While many artists would have been satisfied with this first print as a finished work, Ackroyd went on, removing layers from the plate in each new state – 10 in all, each of which was printed and preserved – until he’d captured his vision of blazing summer light, shadows and flickering reflections. “For me, the process of etching is never a chore,” he says. “Some people just like being in a kitchen; with me it’s an etching studio.”

Norman Ackroyd in his Bermondsey studio Credit: Rii Schroer

Perhaps surprisingly for someone so compelled by nature, Ackroyd, the youngest son of a family of butchers, hails from the heart of a big city, Leeds. Each weekend of his childhood, though, he’d cycle up into the Dales, and was certain from an early age that he’d be an artist.

“My parents couldn’t imagine how I was going to make a living, but for me it seemed very simple.” At Leeds College of Art, he got his first taste of etching, and felt an immediate “tingle – an intellectual response that’s in the hands as much as the mind”.

While he dabbled with pop art at the Royal College of Art (where he was in the year below fellow Yorkshireman David Hockney) and went up “various other cul-de-sacs”, everything he did seemed to fall into a landscape format.

Apart from a couple of years in New York in the early Seventies, he’s lived in London ever since and now couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. “There’s an appetite for art here,” he says. “I went to the private view of one of my exhibitions the other night, and I could hardly get in the door. You don’t get that anywhere else in Britain – not even in Yorkshire.” 

Glancing round Ackroyd’s rather dingy lair, dominated by the huge wheels of his 19th-century cast-iron presses, you’ll see no computers, or, in fact, much else to indicate you’re in the modern age. The acid-free etching process increasingly employed in art schools in order to save students from having to inhale hazardous fumes holds no appeal for him. “That’s like a pub that only serves alcohol-free beer,” he says. “They call it health and safety, but it’s just laziness. There’s risks to everything in life. I work with a whole palette of acids, and I’ve still got all my eyes and fingers.” 

Cape Wrath, an etching by Norman Ackroyd

For Ackroyd, “painting with acid” remains the very essence of etching – and a source of sensual pleasure. “Sometimes you just kiss the plate with the acid to get the subtlest tones,” he says. “Sometimes you put it in the acid bath to take the marks right through to black. The longer it’s in the acid, the deeper it cuts, the more ink it holds and the darker the printed marks.”

When he starts talking about the process, I feel my head begin to spin as it did when I was back at art college. Maybe I suffer from some kind of printmaking dyslexia? “You and the rest of humanity,” he says. “With printmaking everything happens the reverse of the way you expect it to. It doesn’t come naturally to most people.” It clearly does to him. “I can look at a piece of copper and I can see the image that’s going to come out of it,” he concedes. “But then I’ve been doing it a long time.”