1992 Norman Ackroyd on Prints
In 1992, Norman Ackroyd gave St Kilda—Stac Lee and Stac an Armin, an etching with aquatint, as a Diploma Work to the Royal Academy (Fig. 1). In the previous year, he had been elected a full Royal Academician in the category of Engraver and exhibited one St Kilda print from the edition of ninety at the Summer Exhibition.1 Since making his first etching plate in 1957, Ackroyd has consistently experimented with printmaking and printing techniques, and has championed the role of printmakers and prints within the Academy, especially in his role at the Academy Schools as a Professor of Printmaking. Ackroyd has seen prints move from a fairly marginal position within the Summer Exhibition to a much more central one—a move he played an important role in orchestrating as a member of the Selection and Hanging Committees. In this interview with Sarah Victoria Turner (SVT) conducted in 2018, Norman Ackroyd (NA) reflects on the place of prints and printmakers at the Summer Exhibition and the Academy more broadly.
SVT: When were you first involved in the organisation of the Summer Exhibition?
NA: 1989 was the first time I was involved in hanging the summer show, and at that time, the prints were all just put, as an afterthought, in the gallery at “the back of the shop”. But in 1989, I think they advertised that Allen Jones and I were hanging the prints and there was a huge submission of really good ones. We looked through them and decided on the first morning of the hang … You have lunch every day in the General Assembly Room and we said to the President (who was Roger de Grey at that time) that we really must make more of the prints. So, we asked whether we could move them to the Large South Room. And he agreed!
SVT: So it wasn’t a battle?
NA: No, Roger de Grey was very good about it. We moved everything into the Large South Room and we built some small display extensions so we could hang the small prints more effectively, because a lot of the best ones are tiny. People come through that room to reach the Small South Room, where traditionally you hung small paintings which were more affordable. It had a huge effect on print sales (which, of course, the financial boffins at the Academy noticed!). So Roger co-opted me several more times in the 90s to hang the prints. It carried on improving and improving.
SVT: Have you seen a change in the quality of submissions because prints have a more central place at the Summer Exhibition?
NA: Well, it works on all levels. People started seeing how many prints were being sold and I mean, suddenly, it was a viable career for a heck of a lot of people … Prints came in from all over the country … from Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Liverpool, Leeds … Huge floods of prints, and a lot of very good ones too.
SVT: Did these changes at the Summer Exhibition coincide with the London Original Print Fair?
NA: Just about that time—slightly earlier—we started doing the London Original Print Fair at the Academy in 1985. So suddenly, the Royal Academy became a centre for prints: not just showing them, but selling them. The Print Fair blossomed.
SVT: I wanted to ask about your own work at the Summer Exhibition—when were you elected RA?
NA: I was elected an ARA in 1988. That year German television came over to film the whole paraphernalia of the Summer Exhibition. People bringing their pictures in … it’s wonderful and includes one of my etchings and then, me signing the roll to become an Academician with Roger de Grey.
SVT: And when did you start sending your work to the Summer Exhibition? Was it long before you were made an Academician?
NA: Yes, it was when I was still a student at the Royal College of Art. I used to paint as well, even though I was one of Julian Trevelyan’s students in etching, and the Head of Painting at the RCA persuaded me to submit, in about 1962 or 1963. I put two paintings in the summer show and they both sold. That was quite good, and it persuaded me to put in again. It’s a bit of a lottery.
SVT: Let’s return to the process of hanging the exhibition. Where do you start when you are hanging the exhibition?
NA: I see it on the floor first, laid out (Fig. 2). It starts off with chaos, really. Then, you get it … say that’s a Julian Opie and then, this is a complete unknown, next to three Quentin Blakes and a Yinka Shonibare. I do tend to go on symmetry and you’re looking for big things or certain really important things and then, you hang around that and you start to build it up like a skeleton.
SVT: The collage-like hang is obviously one of the famous things about the Summer Exhibition. There’s nothing else quite like it, is there?
NA: I think it’s absolutely wonderful, the idea. I remember one year when I said to the President, “See if you can get a couple of really good Jasper Johns prints because he is an honorary member.” A couple of wonderful Jasper Johns prints came in to the Summer Exhibition that year. I gave them a really good place and then, I surrounded them with complete unknowns, which I thought were really good etchings. So, there was complete unknowns next to Johns. A lot of them, it turned out, were students.
SVT: So, for them, seeing their work next to Johns must have been exciting.
NA: Well, I think that’s what you can do with the summer show. Rather than take all the big names and put them on one wall … Mix it up. Trust your eye. That’s good, this is emerging talent. Just like Jasper Johns was once. I think about that a lot, the kind of democratic generosity that the Academy can do with the Summer Exhibition.
Ackroyd was elected ARA in 1988 and became a Senior RA in 2013.↩︎
Thematic categories: Academician Engravers, Diploma Works, display and location of exhibits, Engraver status, hanging of exhibits, London Original Print Fair, Presidents of the Royal Academy, prints, Professors of Printmaking, reproduction of paintings, Selection and Hanging Committee