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Alchemy of Light

The Art of Roger Ackling

Reminiscence of Artist Roger Ackling, who made his Art harnessing the Sun’s Rays

Portrait of Roger Ackling with his Lens, Voewood, Norfolk, 2010. Photo by Alexander de Cadenet

It must have been towards the end of 2008 that I began to consider purchasing my first piece of art – a small sculpture by British artist Roger Ackling.

Roger’s work was created by harnessing the energy of the sun through a magnifying glass and burning what appeared to be Aboriginal looking parallel lines into pieces of driftwood. Although often small scale, measuring a few inches in diameter, they seemed to emanate a gentle yet powerful presence.

I looked around on the internet for a piece by him that fit my rather meagre budget and found a small piece for sale at his gallery in Basel, Gisele Linder. I got in touch with the gallery and begun a dialogue about the work. Considering his work was in the collections of the Tate Gallery and museums around the world, I was delighted to know that his work was not astronomical and could still be picked up for hundreds as opposed to thousands.

Through these discussions and as I learnt more about his work, I started to wonder if there was any chance of commissioning him to do something especially for me. I recall the conversation with Ms. Linder going something along the lines of, “Roger has never done a commission for a client, he only makes what he wants to make”. “Well might you could consider making a proposal to him, please? It’s a very simple idea really – it’s a rectangular piece of wood and it would have just one line on it – along the golden section”. “Let me ask him and I will revert back to you”.

About 6 months later I got a little package in the post by special delivery. I opened it up and took the piece out of its protective casing – there it was, just as I had envisioned it, a rectangular block of wood with rounded edges featuring a single burnt in line crossing the face of the work about five eighths of the way up. I turned it over to look at the back where I discovered he had burned in a written message to me: ‘FOR ALEX 24.5.09’.

There is no way he could have known what my birthday was – yet there it was scorched into this work of art! How did he know? I needed to find out!

I got in touch with the gallery and asked them if Roger had asked them when my birthday was and they informing me that he had not discussed this with them. I asked if I could be put in touch with him so I could ask him in person – “No, I didn’t know that was your birthday!” he informed me.

It appealed to him that it had in some way been discarded or had got lost; and he saw his role to recycle it and “make it special”

Brought to Light Installation, Annely Juda Fine Art, London, 2018.

The synchronicity of this wasn’t lost on him, though we didn’t dwell on it, he seemed to take it in his stride. It was as if it was meant to happen, some higher power was guiding the proceedings! Subsequently he agreed to become a subject for my own portrait of him. The first part of this was to meet him at his home in Voewood in Norfolk. I took the train up from London to see Roger and his wife, Sylvia. I spent part of the afternoon taking photos of him in his home and gardens – some of which are presented here for the first time.

During our conversations, he gave me some insights into his work that I haven’t forgotten. One of which was that he invariably selected a found piece of wood that had some evidence of previous human interaction with it; a nail, a hole, a coat hanger, a wooden sign, a bird box, or some saw marks. It appealed to him that it had in some way been discarded or had got lost; and he saw his role to recycle it and “make it special”. The seaside walks he went on to collect his pieces of drift wood were filled with joy and meaning for him with resultant artworks becoming the ultimate distillations of his life experiences – a deep connection and celebration of nature. The process of collection and selection of the pieces was intrinsic to their meaning for him.

The second part involved a trip to the x-ray centre in London where Roger posed for his own ‘skull portrait’. I ended up showing one of the portraits I made of him at a show in London at the Alexia Goethe Gallery in Dover Street and five years later I made a second version of Roger, called The Alchemist, which is shown here. In one hand he’s holding an inverted version of the work he made for me and in the other hand he’s holding the lens he used to make his art which still has his actual eye framed within it – its as if that lens was an inner seeing alchemical eye that both celebrated and captured “what it is at the time of making”. Roger passed away in 2014 aged 67 but I often look at the artwork he made for me and recall the message he wrote on the back. It’s wonderful to have a piece of art that uplifts and inspires you to consider the mystery of how it came into the world each time you look at it.

The Alchemist, Alexander de Cadenet.

“There is no way he could have known what my birthday was – yet there it was scorched into this work of art!”

Roger Ackling (1947-2014) was a British artist. His first solo exhibition took place at Lisson Gallery, London in 1976 and he then regularly exhibited with Gisele Linder Gallery and Annely Juda Fine Art. His works are featured in many UK and international collections including, Arts Council of Great Britain, British Museum, Fonds National d'Art Contemporain, Paris, Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo and Tate Gallery.

This article first appeared in print in Watkins: Mind, Body, Spirit Magazine Issue 62.



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