Norman Ackroyd in the studio. © Sandra Lousada. Image not licensed for reuse.

A sense of place: The work of Norman Ackroyd

Cathy Courtney uncovers the stories and skills that lie behind the etchings and watercolours of Norman Ackroyd.

‘Etching is about the white paper as much as the black. But you need the white paper and the black, and then it all happens.’

Norman Ackroyd

The life story recording

Norman Ackroyd’s Artists’ Lives recording is a rich demonstration of why an audio oral history can be the perfect medium to capture the wholeness of a person’s experience. One of the world’s most skillful makers of aquatints and watercolours, Ackroyd’s life has unusual unity and focus. He marks no distinction between his childhood experiences helping in his father’s butcher’s shop in Leeds and the fine art practice he is now known for. A keen researcher, Ackroyd’s travels have taken him all over Britain and beyond. His account of his journeys not only recalls sharply observed visual detail but also geological and historical contexts.

Ackroyd was born in 1938. Before he was ten years old he sketched what he saw from his bedroom window, a view of South Leeds which continues to fascinate him and which he has drawn and painted many times since. As a schoolchild, he helped out in the family butcher’s shop. It is reasonable to suggest a connection between the hand and eye co-ordination he developed cutting joints of meat and the steady control he has since used on his etching plates and printing processes. (As an art student he later took Christmas jobs at Pork Farms, when he would cut up a hundred pigs before clocking off for the day at noon.)

Another of Ackroyd’s boyhood tasks was cashing up in the shop. His delight when remembering the coins he handled in the 1950s is not so different from the passion with which he speaks of the etching plates he went on to handle.

First encounter with a Henry Moore sculpture

During Ackroyd’s schooldays a Henry Moore sculpture was placed in the grounds of Temple Newsam, a Tudor-Jacobean house to the east of Leeds which has landscaping by Capability Brown. The piece was controversial, widely criticised by the press and by an affronted local population. Ackroyd cycled to look for himself, one of his first encounters with so-called ‘modern art’. Through drawing the Moore sculpture he began to understand it. In recounting the experience Ackroyd uses the analogy of seeing bones emerge in boiling broth to convey his gradual comprehension of what Moore had achieved.

Parallels between cooking and art

Culinary images recur in most sessions of Ackroyd’s recording. Also captured is his delight when the conversation is interrupted by his adult daughter, the musician Poppy Ackroyd, telephoning to find out her father’s recipe for oxtail stew. An enthusiastic chef himself, accounts of eating home-made food and drinking good wine in convivial company form another strand of the recording. Amongst other recollections is his affectionate recall of artist Mary Fedden’s standing pie, made for annual picnics. Fedden taught at the Royal College of Art where her husband, Julian Trevelyan, was one of Ackroyd’s tutors in the print department, which he joined as a student in 1961. Other tutors there included Edward Ardizzone and Bernard Wolpe, both of whom Ackroyd describes as enjoyably Dickensian figures and from whom he learnt a great deal. A feature of Ackroyd’s narrative is the sharing and passing on of techniques and advice – and indeed the handing down of the huge presses themselves – from one generation of etchers to another. Reaching further back, Ackroyd’s precise and impassioned descriptions of etchings by Goya and Stubbs express his sense of close identification with artists over an arc of centuries.

At the same time as feeling part of a tradition, throughout the recording it is clear that Ackroyd feels that with each image he makes, he continues to push boundaries. He states that the ‘ethic’ of etching for him is to work within the limitations of the materials – the metal plate and black and white ink – and to try to get more each time. He uses a musical image to explain: 'A piano is a solo instrument, but it fills a concert hall. The limitations are actually the freedom.'

Leeds School of Art

Before the Royal College, Ackroyd attended Leeds School of Art from 1956 – 1961. Here, he benefited from Basic Design as a method of teaching, an approach that was new in those years, pioneered by Harry Thubron. Even more important for Ackroyd was a teacher named Norman Webster, who ran the Leeds etching department. In this next audio extract he describes a breakthrough moment in his education and how it led to his first sale.

Economic survival

The surprise of Ackroyd’s first sale, to the permanent collection of Leeds City Art Gallery, was echoed when an American dealer bought his whole degree show at the Royal College. The same man immediately offered him an exhibition in Washington. The oral history sheds light on the many administrative aspects of running the steady career Ackroyd has forged over a forty-five year span. Avoiding contractual commitments to any particular gallery, he has never been without invitations to exhibit, many of which he has taken up. The consistent markets, though, developed through his annual studio open days in the run up to Christmas and via the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions. Ackroyd was elected to the Academy in 1988, and his recording interweaves with many others in Artists’ Lives to comment on that institution. The Academy was established for and by artists but now needs professional administrators for what has become a multi-million pound enterprise.

Etching techniques

Artists’ Lives recordings capture the present as well as casting back to the past. Ackroyd’s life story was made in the Bermondsey warehouse in London where he lives and works. It includes conversations with two of his assistants – Jason Hicklin and Niamh Clancy – who were producing editions of his prints on the days when the recording sessions took place. At certain points Ackroyd asked to break off to address problems occurring in the workshops downstairs. The following extract gives a sense of the expertise Ackroyd has accumulated over the years and of his feet-on-the-ground way of explaining how he works with the specialist materials he uses.

An important discovery for Ackroyd happened when he visited the Lacourière workshops in Paris, where Pablo Picasso’s etching for his Histoire Naturelle were printed. He was in time to meet Madam Lacourière, widow of the famous printer.

As skilled with watercolour as he is with etching, Ackroyd’s images in either medium are sometimes tiny, but he also works on a large scale, often with architects. These commissions have led to works for corporate buildings. One such commission came from Hugh Peppiatt, the then senior partner for the firm of solicitors, Freshfields. Hugh Peppiatt was recorded for City Lives in 1992. Another commission, for the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, involved a voyage to the Galapagos Islands to research Ackroyd’s composite work consisting of 40 plates of the flora and fauna he witnessed there.

Voyaging out

Much more typical, though, are the trips by boat Ackroyd has repeatedly taken off the coast of Britain and Ireland. His trips are not for the fainthearted. Here he describes his long working day on the Sea of the Hebrides, filling his sketchbooks with watercolours despite the rocking of the boat and the often hostile weather.

Ackroyd has been granted privileged access to the Scottish Island of St Kilda, once home to a population which fed itself on gannet meat, now usually inhabited only by the scientists working on site. In this next extract he describes the process of making an etching derived from a watercolour, one of many he has made in this region.

Related oral history recordings

Follow the links below to listen to the life story recordings of individuals mentioned in this essay:

Norman Ackroyd, Mary Fedden, Hugh Peppiatt

Many more life story recordings from Artists' Lives and other projects are available on British Library Sounds.

Selected extracts from the exhibition Artists' Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery (Tate Britain 2016-2018) are also available on British Library Sounds in Curator's Choice.

  • Cathy Courtney
  • Cathy Courtney has been Project Director of Artists’ Lives since it began in 1990. For Tate Britain she co-curated (with Elena Crippa) Artists Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery (2016-2018) and (co-curated with Maria White) Artists’ Books (1995). She is a Trustee of the Jocelyn Herbert Archive, now housed at the National Theatre. Publications include Jocelyn Herbert: A Theatre Workbook and Private Views and Other Containers (100 of her reviews on book art for Art Monthly). With Paul Thompson she edited Methuen’s City Lives: The Changing voices of British Finance using extracts from National Life Stories City Lives oral history project.