News Article

TA soldier turns war artist to report on Afghanistan

A History and Honour news article

21 Oct 09

Territorial Army soldier and illustrator Matthew Cook has been continuing the long tradition of artists recording events on the battlefield. In collaboration with the MOD Art Collection Team, his work from Afghanistan and Iraq has been displayed at the MOD's Main Building, London, this week. Report by Tristan Kelly.

A Chinook helicopter resupply

A Chinook helicopter resupply at the forward operating base in Sangin, the orange smoke grenade marks the helicopter landing site and indicates wind direction - Helmand, January 2009
[Picture: Copyright MOD Art Collection]

The exhibition is a way of saying thank you to the MOD which has facilitated Matthew's visits to theatre as an artist and he has also donated two of his works to the MOD Art Collection, which as a result now has pieces representing the work of British forces on current operations.

Matthew joined the TA in 1991 shortly before the first Gulf War and served in Iraq with 7th Battalion The Rifles. His insider knowledge of the Armed Forces is something which he believes has had an influence on his work - allowing him to record equipment and uniforms with an accuracy that others may miss.

Indeed, many of his pieces, in watercolour and pen and ink, are detailed, annotated works recording not only the 'big events' of war but the daily lives of servicemen and women on the ground.

On combining his role as TA soldier and war artist Matthew said:

"I'm under pressure to get the equipment and the uniforms right and I do notice in other people's paintings if they get things wrong - if an ammo pouch is the wrong size or things generally don't look right.

"There is probably a greater understanding of what is going on as well and a knowledge of who's who."

However, the combination of TA soldier and war artist is purely coincidental. Matthew's desire to be a war artist began at an early age with trips to the Imperial War Museum where he would be inspired by the work of First World War artists and the photography of the Western Front.

A Saxon armoured personnel carrier

A Saxon armoured personnel carrier (known as a 'Pig') transports newly-arrived troops from the airport - Kabul, February 2009
[Picture: Copyright Matthew Cook]


Matthew explained:

"As a child, when I used to go to the Imperial War Museum and see very grainy sketches and photographs of no-man's land, they always struck my imagination; this very dangerous patch of land, it always seemed to be very bleak and nothing to pick out apart from a few blasted trees."

This interest was further piqued at art college where Matthew was lucky enough to work one-day-a-week in the studio of celebrated war artist Felix Topolski, famous for paintings of the Battle of Britain and the first meeting of the United Nations as well as many other world events and conflicts.

Inspired by the work of Topolski as well as celebrated British war artist John Piper, it was after a lecture by the Falklands war artist Linda Kitson that Matthew was determined to join Operation Raleigh and take his first steps in producing art in the field in arduous conditions.

It was experience that he would put to good use when in March 2003 Matthew was appointed war artist for The Times and given a week to get ready for the impending war with Iraq before driving alone into the country in the wake of the coalition forces to record what he saw.

Less than a year later Matthew returned to Iraq for a seven-month operational tour as a TA soldier where he served with Cambrai Company, a specially formed unit of The London Regiment.

Its role was protection and escort duties, guarding personnel including weapons inspectors, oil experts and military top brass, as well as guarding vital supplies in and around Basra.

A new enemy position

A new enemy position 200m to the west - Shin Kalay, Afghanistan, February 2009
[Picture: Copyright Matthew Cook]


His commission from The Times was a childhood dream come true, but Matthew explains his motivation is not to send a message but to record the actualities of conflict.

Matthew said:

"It is to record it. I am aware now with Iraq that very quickly it becomes historical and that conflict has been and gone now and the drawings are a bit of history.

"Thankfully the National Army Museum has been very supportive in buying a series of drawings and looking at it historically even though it is a very fresh conflict. In a few years they will be historical documents I suppose.

"Unlike a lot of traditional war artists that are either anti-war or portraying a very spectacular battle or defeat, I'm not trying to achieve either of those, it is purely a record."

Early in 2006 Matthew was due to be mobilised to Afghanistan as a TA soldier but, after this was cancelled at short notice, he went instead as an artist, accompanying 1st Battalion, The Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry.

He visited a number of locations in the regiment's area of operations, including the Afghan capital, Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and the volatile province of Helmand in the south, and has made visits more recently, often leaving the safety of the base to sketch the country while bullets are flying overhead.

Urinals next to FOB Argyll

Urinals next to Forward Operating Base Argyll - Nad e-Ali, Helmand, February 2009
[Picture: Copyright Matthew Cook]


Drawing in such circumstances can be demanding as Matthew explains:

"It is difficult in every aspect, but strangely enough I think ever since a child I have been drawing in bad weather and difficult situations.

"In Operation Raleigh I was drawing in tropical jungles and ships and I think that has prepared me for the dust and crowds peering over my shoulder or muddy notebooks, scribbling while I'm walking.

"Subconsciously I prepared myself beforehand. But none of it is easy. The sun is too hot, there is too much dust, glare in my eyes and everything goes wrong but that is all part of it.

"Rounds would be going off by my head and I would try to keep calm and keep drawing. My hands were shaking sometimes though."

However, it is not the major contacts and big battles that attract Matthew to the front line and one of his favourite pieces in the current exhibition is at first glance a peaceful sunset scene, as Matthew explains:

"My favourite is only a small sketch. Again, I think it comes from days as a child when I used to go to the Imperial War Museum and seeing very grainy sketches of no-man's land.

"My homage to that was a quick sketch as the sun was going down.

A Bulgarian sentry position

A Bulgarian sentry position at one of the main gates to Kandahar Airfield - Kandahar, January 2009
[Picture: Copyright Matthew Cook]


"It is a sunset view with puffs of smoke from 40mm grenades going off and small arms hitting a Taliban firing point where they were shooting from.

"It doesn't look very violent or dangerous, more a pastoral evening view, but it was my homage to those no-man's land pictures where you know someone has risked quite a lot to stick their head up just to take a photo."

The response from servicemen and women to his work has been very positive. Many people have said they recognise the locations and bases even if they haven't been to that particular area or at that particular time:

"There is a lot of the nitty gritty bits: the urinals, cooking facilities etc. I enjoy recording everyday life in theatre, perhaps brewing up in the rain etc.

"I suppose the drawings are just a soldier's eye view of conflict."

The current exhibition is Matthew's way of honouring those soldiers and thanking the MOD for its support for his work. All proceeds from the sale of the exhibition catalogue will go to the Army Benevolent Fund.

While he has no immediate plans to return to Afghanistan his passion for war reporting is undiminished and he is now looking at other areas where he can focus his efforts:

"I'd love to go to the Falklands or Sierra Leone," he said.

"Anywhere that isn't desert really!"

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