Galapagos: getting to the art of the matter

The tide is rising in Norman Ackroyd’s studio – a former tanner’s warehouse in Bermondsey Leather Market, south of London Bridge. The third floor should be Ackroyd’s sitting room, a retreat from the artistic processes that occupy the lower two floors. But a proliferation of watercolour sketchbooks, draft layouts, test zinc plates and small-scale working prints have risen up from the printing presses below to occupy almost every flat surface, both vertical and horizontal, as he accelerates towards finishing his Galapagos installation for the Gilmour Suite of the Sainsbury Laboratory.
This is a self-conscious immersion; Ackroyd says that since sailing around the Galagagos Islands over a year ago, recording the ‘beautiful, eccentric things’ things he saw from the boat in over twenty sketchbooks, the spiritual journey has been like ‘swimming underwater, trying to find the essence of what it’s all about’. Brimming with images and ideas, Ackroyd returned to England and for weeks struggled to identify an iconic image for the commission that is to occupy the south wall of the Gilmour Suite, a large area of about ten square metres facing Cory Lodge lawn. The answer came as an epiphany at 3am one morning when he realized that instead of a unique image, a frieze of forty etched metal plates would provide the canvas range necessary to express the extraordinary diversity of fauna, flora, landscapes, but above all, atmospheres, of these touchstone islands.

Ackroyd, born in Yorkshire in 1938, studied at the Leeds College of Art before moving to London to attend the Royal College of Art. Still ensconced in the capital some 40 years late, the exploration of litoral margins and wild landscapes is nevertheless a recurrent theme. His work sees him time and again setting sail around the western shore of Ireland ‘a bare extremity of inlets, promontories and islands confronting the unfettered might of the Atlantic Ocean’, or the highlands and islands of Scotland, or England’s north-east coast. He brings the wild back with him: a recent commission was for the new headquarters of Lazard Bros at Green Park. The Stratton Street series of etchings brings the wildest extremities of the British Isles to the heart of London, the clarity of each image honed both in the crucible of creative process but also by the precise, scientific techniques required by engraving.

Back on the floor of Ackroyd’s sitting room, forty small-scale prints created from zinc plates pushed through the enormous, hand-turned presses two floors down, have now been laid out in four long rows, ten images to each row, their final arrangement set and numbered. The result is a gazetteer of the volcanic forms and shapes of the Galapagos islands themselves, interspersed with intimate portraits of the flora and fauna - preening penguins, attenuated flamingos, Galapagos cacti, endemic Compositae, a pair of cormorants. The play of light on water ripples like a fluid bond between the forty scenes, uniting those scenes of drama and movement, where a squall blows into a bluff or a flock of gulls beat the air over the water, with other scenes of limpid stillness. A subtle rhythm runs through the piece as familiar profiles, such as the jagged spires of Kicker Rock, San Cristobal, are presented from different perspectives. Despite undertaking extensive reading and research prior to his journey, Ackroyd claims to have felt ‘entirely free of Darwin’ on his voyage. The unfettered, fresh exuberance of the work strips away the subsequent Darwin associations, to reveal the beauty and individuality of the islands and the life they support, and capturing, ironically, much of the discoverer’s wonder that Darwin must have felt on coming to the islands in 1835.

Above the layout hang two pairs of trial, stainless steel plates at actual-size (72cm x 36cm). The translation of each image onto the metal plate brings a lively reflective quality to the work which will be enhanced when Galapagos is installed in situ at the Garden and the natural light filtered through the oaks will animate the work.

Ackroyd has now entered what he calls the ‘technical phase’, and it feels like coming up for air. Working with acid resists and sugar solutions to ‘paint’ each scene onto the stainless steel plate, the plate is then bathed in acid to transfer the image. It requires absolute precision, and Ackroyd measures the depth of the acid ‘eat’ with a micrometer to achieve detailed inflections and ensure consistency of tone across the work. The stainless steel plate is then flooded with resin-enriched ink to bring up the relief and the excess rubbed away. While prints on paper and small-scale zinc- or copper-engraved plates can be produced in his London studio, Ackroyd will be working with a specialist studio in St Neots over the coming weeks to produce the forty full-size plates. The technical concentration will extend also to finalising the design and commission of a system of 240 individual metal tabs that will lock the piece together and allow seamless installation. This will be tested out first at this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, to which Ackroyd was elected an Academician in 1991. Ackroyd will ‘sky’ the piece for the Summer Exhibition, which runs from 14 June – 22 August, meaning it will be installed high up on the wall to take advantage of natural light from the ceiling lanterns, whereas when it is installed on the Gilmour Suite, it will be ‘on the line’ so visitors will be able to really examine the work at eye-level.

The generation of Galapagos has been exhilarating and all-consuming, and Ackroyd has particularly appreciated his early involvement in the project, thus ensuring a fluid and elegant incorporation of artwork into the new building. Alan Stanton of Stanton Williams, the architects of the Sainsbury Laboratory, expands: ‘Lord and Lady Sainsbury decided early on that they wished to include substantial commissioned artworks within the project - works that would explore a relationship with the Botanic Garden and its history, the scientific research programme and the building itself. We were thus able to work with the selected artists from an early stage of the building's design development and this allowed the artworks to become an important and integral part. For the design team, it has been a real privilege and pleasure to work with such distinguished artists, including Norman Ackroyd. Their involvement is another example of the outstanding patronage that this project has received.’

But, for Ackroyd, once Galapagos goes off to its temporary resting place at the Royal Academy, he is looking forward to reclaiming his sitting room, briefly, before pushing off from the shore once more on another artistic voyage around the Irish coast.

Juliet Day, Development Officer
Friends' News 83, May 2010