A couple of weeks ago I was asked by my fellow artist friend Olga to help her move house permanently from London up to Dunfermline. I thought it would be a great chance to have a wander round the galleries and soak up some sunshine down there, so jumped at the chance to go down for a few days. We had a fantastic time hanging around in the Shoreditch area of the East End and I paid my usual trip to Cass Art in Islington and also stocked up on some printing supplies at Intaglio near London Bridge. It was scorching late that afternoon and we were dying of thirst in the 35c heat so decided to go for a pint before heading off our separate ways. Olga had a gallery opening back in Brick Lane she wanted to go to and I just wanted to wander around the city some more and take loads of photos. We had discussed trying to find the printmaker Norman Ackroyd’s studio earlier in the day, but that was probably like looking for a needle in a haystack. Ackroyd is probably my biggest inspiration when it comes to etching, and I have always wanted to pay a visit to his studio. Since Bermondsey was just the other side of The Shard, and I knew that his studio was somewhere in that vicinity, we decided to have a look for it on the off-chance we might just see it from the outside, or perhaps even bump into him in his favourite bar just across the road. Wishful thinking indeed!
We’d both seen the BBC programme What Do Artists Do All Day which featured Norman (follow link below if you want to watch it, it’s fantastic!), and I had taken a mental snapshot of the outside of his studio building from that show. And so we headed off with the aid of Google Maps and in the somewhat vague hope of finding this sacred place. In fact, we found the distinctive studio building surprisingly quickly – with it’s bird feeders hanging from a rather ornate iron ornament high up near the roof. And so we hung about outside like a couple of kids, trying to pluck up the courage to ring the bell. You may call it stalking, though I prefer to think of it as making a pilgrimage to pay my respects to one of my few still-living favourite artists. Anyway, Olga thought it might be a little rude to arrive unannounced, and I had to admit that it the feel like a rather bizarre thing to be doing right then and there, when you actually thought about it. She offered me a tangerine to chew on while we mulled the situation over. After a moment, and when she wasn’t looking, I rang the bell and casually wandered off to a nearby bin with the orange peel, leaving Olga to explain herself if the door should actually open! Alas, all this was to no avail. He wasn’t in and that was an end to it. Ok, next best thing was to go and have our pint in the Spanish tapas bar where Norman usually had lunch (well, that’s what it had said on the tv show!). We ordered drinks and some tapas and I asked the manager if he’d seen the great man recently. Yes, as a matter of fact, he’d been in for lunch only a couple of hours before. Buggeration!! The manager continued to rub salt into our wounds by adding what a lovely chap Norman was and how everyone round about knew him as a local character, but not at all what he did or that he happened to be one of the country’s most highly respected and best loved artists. I couldn’t help feeling gutted, but at the same time I felt quite warm inside just to have caught even a tiny glimpse of the man, his routine and his home environment. Olga and me felt happy enough really just to be sat there in his favourite bar, thinking of the man and discussing his wonderful work.
I was just about to attack my tortilla when out of the corner of my eye I caught site of a rather sprightly old man across the road, albeit laden down with heavy shopping bags and colossal bunch of fresh flowers from the market across the road. Bloody hell … it’s him! IT’S NORMAN ACKROYD!! Without hesitation, I was out of there and across the street in a flash. Standing there, gesticulating and bumbling like an idiot in front of a rather startled Mr Ackroyd! Words failed me as I tried not to sound like the weird stalker I was so obviously aware of looking like at that moment. I could hear myself asking his name (like I didn’t already know!!) and it sounded odd to be saying it to the man himself. But he smiled and, thankfully, cut me short by explaining very matter-of-factly that he’d just gotten back from a week away on the North Sea, sketching the Yorkshire coastline from a fishing boat out of Whitby. Not bad going for a chain-smoking 76 year old who lives and breaths in the alchemical world of etching (Mr Ackroyd’s etching methods are not for the Health and Safety brigade, but they are the only way to get those kind of results!). He motioned to his front door just along the street and asked if I’d like to come in for a look. Eh, are you kidding me??!! I was already on my way with him before remembering poor Olga who was still in the bar and watching all this from the window in total disbelief. I asked if she could join us then rushed back to get her, before making our excuses to the bar manager for not eating, drinking or paying for anything as yet (he was fine with that, so long as we came back afterwards and he actually waved us off!). And then we were inside the studio.
The next hour or so was probably the most incredible experience of my artistic life, not only to be shown round the whole place by Norman, but also to be given etching tips from a true master. He described his processes and techniques in some detail and allowed us to wander round freely while he was on the phone to a to a neighbour about an extension. The opportunity to see so many beautiful Ackroyd prints up this close and especially to analyse the copper plates he used to make them was more than I could have hoped for. We even got to go upstairs where he dries his prints and has his painting studio. A real highlight for both me and Olga was to see the map of the British Isles onto which he has posted a pin at every place that he has visited over the past few decades to make an etching or a painting. Pretty much the entire coastline and archipelago of the north British Isles and Ireland is dotted with coloured pins. I was also lucky enough to get a signed copy of his very rare and wonderful book, A Line In The Water, which I’d been trying without success to buy for over 2 years. The fact that he dropped some fag ash on it while signing made the whole thing even better in my mind.
They say you should never meet your heros, but that hour or so spent with Norman Ackroyd has taught me more about art and what it takes to be an artist than I could ever have learned from books, or tv programmes alone. And I also learned that if you really want to make good art, or make anything happen at all, you just have to get out there and go for it.
Here’s a link to the BBC programme: What Artists Do All Day