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My visit to Norman Ackroyd’s studio

Norman Ackroyd is probably one of the most famous of contemporary British printmakers. Like me, he continues to use traditional methods of etching and as a result of contacting him for some advice a few months ago, I took the opportunity of visiting his studio in London on Monday (his admin. day and when he’s open for visitors).


I am writing this by hand (ready for transfer to the blog) in the Tate members’ café overlooking the Thames.  The sky is shot with strands of cloud and everything below looks calm and balanced through the glass.  It’s rare but that’s how I’m feeling today and I think the reason is – my visit to Norman’s!!


There were gleaming copper plates of all shapes and sizes everywhere, in progress on his work bench, leaning in layers on shelves, resting on the hot plates, lying on the etching presses.  To his delight he rediscovered one hiding in his cleaning box and demonstrated how to finish cleaning it with a handful of leather bookbinding scraps.  On the narrow shelves above, I noticed great chunks of jeweller’s rouge and charcoal for polishing plates to a high finish.


Two heavyweight presses dominated the room.  The largest and most impressive was about 100 years old and, I believe, inherited from Frank Brangwyn.   Norman explained various things to do with his own methods of printing, in particular the rotation of his massive supply of blankets which put shame to my meagre 3 or 4 sets. He opened a drawer to reveal rolls and rolls of these blankets displayed in order of length and width, and explained the best way to wash them.  No washing powder please or the important natural oils will be destroyed! They should be soaked in tepid water only and dried flat.  The room too seemed draped in blankets.  There were clusters of inky scrim bundles scattered across the enormous black inking-up plate adjacent to the presses.  And high above us a long roll of clean scrim dangled horizontally from the ceiling, just within arm’s reach.  On some shelves close by were numerous jars of pigments which he grinds with oil  to make his own inks.  He pulled out a small drawer underneath to show us rows of paper cups each half filled with his homemade soft or hard ground.


He demonstrated sugar lift, giving a few hints about application with brushes and mapping pens, and suggestions about recipes.  Hanging from the rafters on four solid chains was a large rusty metal rack. The contraption reminded me of something out of Tina Turner’s Thunderdome in the film, Mad Max; in reality this was the aquatint burning in rack.  I mentioned my recent problem with finding a supplier of fine aquatint rosin dust and how it has a small proportion of French chalk added to prevent it from solidifying again.  He looked mystified and strode across to a bench, placed some lump rosin in the middle of a tray, and crushed it to dust in an instant with an old steel iron.  He claimed never to have heard of this dust coming in a packet ready crushed!  I had a quick glance at his homemade aquatint and bitumen boxes  – enormous constructions similar to my own in concept, except that mine is missing the bicycle pedal as handle for the paddle!


Towards the end he was starting to look distracted about the next thing on his list for the day, but as we were leaving, he still had time to allow us to dwell on his series of delightful small scale working etchings on zinc displayed in the entrance lobby.   These were in preparation for his Galapagos installation recently completed at the Sainsbury Laboratory.  Throughout the visit he was generous with his time and patient with my stream of questions. It was an affirming experience for me because of his total commitment to traditional etching.  He was open to the new methods, understanding the issues behind their development, but there was no question about his passion for the alchemy of wax grounds, rosins, linseed oil based inks, and the old fashioned heavy duty etching press.