Artist finding inspiration on Iraq's frontline

HE WAS SITTING at a desk in the corner of a room in the grand entrance hall of Saddam Hussein’s palace next to the Shatt al-Arab canal in Basra, doodling on a pad. Not a soldier: the clothes were all wrong and those worn brown boots would never have passed muster. An off-duty officer, perhaps. He looked up: "I’m Mungo," he said. "I’m the war artist."

He reached for the pad and flipped through it. Soldiers, more soldiers, a few landscapes, tiny but richly coloured, a few scenes of daily life in Iraq. Some were rough sketches, just pencil outlines. Some looked like the finished article. He’d been wandering round with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders for weeks, sitting in the back of the soldiers’ Land Rovers, joining them on their patrols. He’d been shot at a couple of times, but didn’t seem to mind too much. He was just happy to be there in Iraq.

In a world of 24-hour rolling news and embedded reporters and photographers, a war artist might seem an anachronism, but when the Argylls rang him up and suggested he join them, Mungo McCosh thought it sounded rather a good idea.

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Six months later, McCosh is back home in Broughton in Peeblesshire, putting the finishing touches to the full-size paintings that the Argylls have commissioned. It was an e-mail from his godfather, a former Argyll, that put him on to them. "It was Hogmanay, a filthy night, and I couldn’t get out, so I was reading my e-mails. He said they were looking for someone to go out with them. I was extremely interested, though more in going to Iraq than painting the pictures," he says.

The 34-year-old previously lived in Istanbul for six years after leaving the Glasgow School of Art; he was interested in what was going on in the Middle East. He realised there were risks, but felt they were outweighed by the opportunities. After all, this was the turn of last year: southern Iraq had been relatively quiet for months. "You have to weigh it up. The British sector hadn’t had any casualties since the previous October. As it turned out, it was all about to go to pot, but you don’t know that."

He went to meet Lieutenant-Colonel Jonny Gray, the Argylls’ commanding officer. Over lunch, Gray sought to establish whether he had the right man for the job: "If you can paint military vehicles, can you paint Arab light?" the colonel asked. McCosh assured him he could paint anything. He flew out in March; it was, he was surprised to note, more normal than he imagined it would be. "You get the impression of chaos, but things seemed to be running very well," he says. The Argylls put him up at the palace in Basra. There had been plenty of time to do the place up; it had shower blocks, some inside toilets and a perfectly passable canteen. "Army life was quite luxurious. I was expecting it to be more primitive, more sandbags and mosquito nets rather than air conditioning and doughnuts for dinner."

He was to be pitched into the rough-and-ready world of the Jocks, as the infantrymen are known. McCosh is well spoken, wears black-rimmed spectacles and a tweed jacket; it could have been a culture shock. But he claims to have been unconcerned: "I reckoned that once they saw I could draw their portraits they would be OK."

He was right. The Jocks took him in, as they sometimes do stray animals. They adopted him, and decided to look after him. Initially, they took him up to Maysan province, bordering Iran and home to the Marsh Arabs.

IT WAS REALLY RATHER peaceful, he says, outside the main town of Amarah. They went out to the marshes and the people they met seemed pleased to see them. "I didn’t get a feeling of hostility," he says. As they travelled around, he sketched quickly, his eyes on the soldiers or the landscape rather than the page, preferring to concentrate on the feel of the shape rather than an exact replica of what was in front of him. The pages of his notepads are full of such drawings, some more detailed than others, a few just a hastily sketched series of lines, barely forming the outline of the scenes in front of him.

"I tended to draw as we were going along, as everything happened," he says. "I was drawing in a continuous line and the feeling of the drawing was more important than the accuracy. You haven’t got time to worry if you’ve got the nose exactly right.

"We were in the back of open Land Rovers, so I was drawing the landscapes from there. My view tended to be between the legs of the top cover [the soldiers standing up in the back of the vehicles]," he says. "I had to alter my style to paint small landscapes to encapsulate the country we were in."

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But eventually he had to leave the calm of Maysan behind. Down in Basra, a company were getting shot at almost every night. McCosh came under fire for the first time. "Everyone was nervous. We were contacted [fired on] going along the road. A guy fired a couple of shots with a revolver. There were lots of incidents like that," he says.

But the shots missed and, for the most part, he was not too bothered. When it did get a little hairy, such as the descent into Basra on board the RAF Hercules that swoops down in a steep dive to make itself a more difficult target for the gunmen who like to shoot at the aircraft as they come in to land, he just concentrated on drawing what was around him, to take his mind off the dangers.

Later, once the patrols were over and no-one was shooting at him, he painted in the outlines that he sketched during the day, using watercolours. It was a perfect medium for Iraq, he says; the paint dried almost as soon as it hit the page.

By the end of his five-week stay, he had 150 pictures. He had produced about four or five a day, though it depended on what was going on around him. "When the situation became less stable and we were getting out less, I did much more finished paintings, an overview of each camp and portraits of people."

He thinks the Argylls liked the results: he hopes so. "The problem with most military art is that it is bombastic and grandiose and I wanted to produce art that reflected what was mundane and real," he says.

"I said to the Argylls: ‘I am an artist painting military subjects, not a military artist.’" Some of the pictures will hang in the Argylls’ mess; others have been bought by those who feature in them.

HE MAY HAVE ENJOYED it, but McCosh has no intention of going back to Iraq: "Whether anything happens to you is down to luck. You can be careful, but to a certain extent it is luck and there is only a certain extent to which you can push that."

Yet his fascination with areas of conflict remains undiminished. "I’d go to Afghanistan like a shot," he says.

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