Patrick Procktor
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Patrick Procktor

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in London by Editions Alecto, 1978. 40 pages, with twelve aquatints by Patrick Procktor. 35 × 28 cm. colophon: ‘The aquatints were printed under the artist’s supervision by Charles Newington, assisted by Frank Tuseley and Cathy Chalker, at Tisiphone Etching Ltd., the cover paper was printed by Megara Screenprinting Ltd; and the book was designed and the letterpress printed by Sebastian Carter at the Rampant Lions Press, Cambridge, on Crisbrook paper hand-made by Barcham Green. The edition of 100 copies was bound by John P. Gray and Sons of Cambridge, and that of 25 special copies was bound by Sangorski and Sutcliffe of London.’

Born in Dublin, Patrick Procktor (1936–2003) was conscripted into the Royal Navy as a student of Russian between 1954 and 1956. He studied at the Slade from 1958 to 1962, and held the first of many exhibitions at the Redfern Gallery, London in 1963. In the early 1970s he travelled to India, Nepal and South Africa, and in later years held exhibitions around the world, including Paris, Venice, Lisbon, Munich, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Procktor was elected a Royal Academician in 1995.

Procktor made his series of Ancient Mariner lithographs in 1976. They were commissioned by Harry Tatlock Miller, and refer explicitly to the wood engravings of Gustave Doré. The artist later recalled:

I mentioned to Harry that I’d been reading [the Ancient Mariner] one night, and that I found the Gustave Doré etchings very exciting, and how enviable it was that illustration could be undertaken on such a lavish scale. He simply said, ‘I think it would be wonderful if you did it.’

Patrick Procktor’s series numbers twelve, as opposed to Doré’s forty-two, but he modestly excuses himself by observing that he did not have Doré’s team of engravers, his own being done ‘by his own hand (not to forget the collaboration of the printer, Charles Newington).’ Of his working method, he notes:

there is less professionalism in the matter of cross-hatching but greater evidence of the excitement of the medium, of the resin and the reactions of the copper to the acid. And half are coloured etchings, which would have been considered the height of bad taste in Victorian times, though not in the eighteenth century. The etchings for the poem are in line and aquatint.

Procktor insists on the personal vision which his images contain, a vision which can admit the anachronism of mixing with Doré’s sailing boat the modern ships and liners Procktor had known, first as a sailor, then as a passenger:

The poem is full of visual clues but the images that the etchings return to are the infinite seascape and a heap of dead sailors. The period is not specified. I wasn’t sure what kind of ship I was drawing; the first etching, ‘And ice, mast-high, came floating by,’ uses Doré’s galleon, surrounded by pale grey-green icebergs, but two etchings were based on watercolours done on board the SS Orange, bound for South Africa. One – clearly showing the ribwork of the modern ship – is entitled ‘I pass, like night from land to land’, as the mariner returns; it is definitely from a contemporary liner. The return is not just from the journey, but from past time to present time. Somewhere in between it is an anti-submarine frigate, with the sailors dressed in the number eights of my youth – and not an officer in sight.

Procktor admires the physical drive which he had found in Doré’s lively depiction of the sailors on the deck, for they remind him of ‘true sailors on the deck of a ship’. Paradoxically he describes them as the ‘dead sailors’. He is aware of Doré’s sailors on the one hand, and at the same time of ‘the true sailors on the deck of the ship when we sailed to South Africa, the ones that used to come up to get a breath of air from the engine room and throw themselves on the deck – they all do have a very strong physical drive. It’s not just a question of sex; it’s a seeking to give expression to that physical drive to describe what you find powerful in a physical way.’

The strength in all Procktor’s work, particularly in the etchings, is to seek shades and nuances, sometimes in colour, but in this series quite often in black and white:

Night has such an emotive force in Coleridge, but I don’t necessarily see it as frightening or gruesome, and the overall effect of my etchings compared to Doré is much lighter. Night can be a beautiful image, as in speeded up film of a sunset, or when on an aeroplane night suddenly overhauls one like a blanket. We struggled to get the effect of moonlight for ‘All fixed on me their stony eyes / That in the moon did glitter’. The composition is based on Doré, printed in one colour, black, but the figures are reinterpreted in line and are not shaded. Neither do they very energetically fix their eyes; they lie on the rearing prow in a tumble. Simplified to line, the style has a hint of Cocteau. The slowness with which the line is etched makes a precise contour that is yet flaccid and exhausted like the sailors.

In 1978 Procktor’s aquatints were published in book form by Editions Alecto and the Redfern Gallery. The text was brilliantly designed and printed by Sebastian Carter of the Rampant Lions Press, Cambridge. It was Carter, with his father Will, who had designed the text for the second edition of David Jones’s Mariner published by the Chilmark Press in 1964.