RA Magazine Autumn 2008
Issue Number: 100
Best seat in the house
The hubbub of London street life is a huge source of inspiration for Peter Freeth RA, his neighbours his unwitting subjects. Fiona Maddocks _visits the master etcher in his home-studio with its front-row view on the world.
Peter Freeth, Royal Academician and master etcher, thinks of his Muswell Hill studio as a theatre. An elegant, first-floor room in an Edwardian terrace on a main road, it has little of the proscenium arch or greasepaint about it. The walls are white, the ceilings high. All is bathed in a flat, east light, without drama.
On the contrary, the array of brown-glass bottles and plastic trays, plus a whiff of nitric acid - the bitter-sweet smell still discernible on my notebook days later - is more suggestive of a pharmacy, though without the chilly clinical atmosphere that implies. This is a lab in which a creative spirit has run amok to perform its own kind of alchemy: brushes, papers, glue, wood, zinc plates, jars, pots, books, newspapers, photographs and shreds of drawings cover every surface. The large etching press, scrim muslin, extractor fan and hot plate are clues to his mysterious occupation.
‘I tidied up a bit, knowing you were coming,’ Freeth grins, making space for me on a chair that doubles as a place to put piles of random junk. He may be joking.
So why a theatre? The answer lies in the huge, rectilinear bay that dominates the room, its three central sashes and two smaller end windows giving a perfect front-row-circle view of the busy north London street below. ‘All day long I watch the comings and goings. It feeds my imagination. This head here [he points to a powerful, muted image] is a neighbour who passes each day on his way to work.’ Does he know he’s immortalised in one of Freeth’s ghostly etchings? ‘No, he hasn’t a clue...’
Freeth was born in Birmingham in 1938, the son of a bus-driver father who sang in choirs and a mother who wrote verse. His grammar school encouraged his talent for art and literature. Aged eighteen, he went to study at the Slade, after which he spent three years in Rome, where he met his Italian wife, Mariolina, a distinguished translator of contemporary American poetry.‘She was at the first party I went to there.’
In 1971, the Freeths, with their first baby, moved to Muswell Hill. ‘I spent two years making the place habitable and not working much. I was looking for a new direction,’ he recalls. Completely by chance, he found it, and he is still haunted by the memory. ‘Just as I’d finished working on the house, I received a life-changing postcard from my uncle [the late Royal Academician, Andrew Freeth, also a printmaker]. It was about four lines long, telling me a novel method of doing etchings. The odd thing was, he’d never tried it out himself and I don’t know where he learned the secret. I find it all very enigmatic. Why did he write to me like that, with no explanation?’
Freeth, a tall figure with a lugubrious but frequent smile, still struggles to explain precisely what he does for hours every day up in his room, and why his uncle’s method is so vital. The process at first sounds simple: paint an image in etching ink, reinforce the wet surface with powdered resin, pass it through an acid bath, repeat the process over and over with variations.
‘Are you following?’ he asks sympathetically. ‘Even my etcher colleagues have usually lost me by this stage. It’s very complicated, but it’s a sort of magic. That’s the fascination.’
Why is his method better than anyone else’s? ‘No idea. It probably isn’t. It’s mad, batty. I like it because it’s a way of biting all the tones in one simultaneous acid immersion, which isn’t the usual way. I’ve taught it to many students at the RA Schools, but they don’t really use it. Still, I’ve been in love with the process for 40 years... And I go on working away, amazed by shades of grey.’
As his studio is also his family home, there’s no escape from his addiction. ‘It’s a pleasure and a prison. When I go upstairs to bed at night, I often end up back in the studio, in my pyjamas. It’s an obsession, I admit.’
Freeth jokes about the hazards of his trade: ‘I’m not affected by the acid fumes because my lungs are so well coated with resin dust.’ But ‘It can’t be good for me’, he acknowledges. ‘I wear a mask for the worst processes. And I do take time off each year around the time of the RA Summer Exhibition, or when we’re in Italy, when I try out watercolours for a few weeks. The other eleven months of the year I’m in black and white...’
He thinks his chapel-going upbringing and the grim, wartime landscape of his Birmingham childhood has informed his sombre artistic outlook. ‘Anthony Gross, my teacher at the Slade in the 1950s, taught the gospel of black and white. At that time I was very much part of a Euston Road tradition: still lifes of flowers, back gardens, London streets, down-and-outs...’
That habit of drawing what he sees has never left him, but he finds inspiration, too, he says ‘in poetry and prose, folk songs, nursery rhymes, memories and dreams’, as well as ‘from imagery of all sorts, from Old Master paintings to old movies’.
Freeth’s imagination clearly keeps him very busy. ‘I’m an appalling workaholic. I can’t tear myself away.’ His show in the Tennant Room this autumn, tracing the development of his technique, will be entitled ‘My Affair with Resin’. ‘When pestered by an over-zealous biographer, Degas groaned, "Just tell them I am someone who loves drawing." I’d have to say the same. Just say I am someone who loves etching - with a passion.’
Peter Freeth Tennant Room, Royal Academy of Arts, 020 7300 8000, www.royalacademy.org.uk
, 5 Nov 2008 - 22 Feb 2009
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