Interview by Tony Kane for Wimbledon Time & Leisure
Artist Michael Alford arrives at his studio on an industrial estate in Wandsworth between eight and nine in the morning and often departs when the light fades.
It’s an unusually disciplined routine for an artist, but then, as a war artist Alford is no stranger to shift work. Such regularity does not run through his artwork, however, and as I wandered around his studio full of mainly figurative or urban landscapes paintings, I noticed that his style varies from one canvas to another. ‘The galleries want me to produce paintings to order,’ he said, ‘but I just can’t do that. If I am to develop and keep freshness, each painting has to be different – a challenge. I know one artist who paints nothing but deckchairs…’ His voice trailed off.
To a large extent he is a self-taught artist who has learnt his trade the hard way in part-time courses at Chelsea College of Art or the Slade by the simple act of doing it. He didn’t even do O-Level art at school: ‘It just didn’t figure in my school curriculum.’ He explained his early artistic career had a comfortable predictability in his annual one man show at the Duncan Campbell Gallery in Mayfair and a prolonged residence in Spain where he could live cheaply, concentrating on his painting without the constant pressure of worrying about sales or commissions. In his early years he also earned a living as a mural artist. So, what possessed Michael to take off to Afghanistan as a war artist, with the very real danger of losing a leg or an arm in a bomb blast? ‘Quite simply, I was asked if I would like to go. The Colonel of the Grenadier Guards liked my work and pulled strings with the Ministry of Defence to give me the status of War Artist.’
Once he had agreed to go he set about the rather tedious business of preparation and jumping through the Ministry’s hoops of checks, inoculations, measurement for body armour and insurance. ‘The actual journey to Kandahar is quite surreal. You take off from RAF Brize Norton, which is rather like any other airport and you arrive at Kandahar which is in effect a huge American city.’ The next stage was the flight to Camp Bastion, another military town set in the middle of Afghanistan. ‘It is a town where you feel completely safe,’ he says.
From there he progressed by stages to embedment with the Guards on the front line. Once there, ‘it all became much more friendly and I finally met the soldiers I was going to spend the next two weeks with. Our quarters were simply mud huts that in the past would have been the houses of Afghan farmers and there was a feeling of peace and quiet; the simple living was a complete contrast to the luxury and activity of the base camps.’ He described the experience as what war in the trenches must have been like in the First World War. ‘We could see the Taliban, they were no more than a few hundred yards away and occasionally they would take pot shots at us. The situation continued like that throughout my time there.’
Michael sometimes accompanied the troops on patrol in the special armoured carriers called Mastiffs or Ridgebacks. I asked what the point of patrols was if they are never going to advance? ‘The military call it “containment”. Just to let them know we were there – stir them up a bit.’ Was he frightened of getting injured by IEDs? ‘Yes. When you first go out it is quite nerve-wracking but you get used to it and don’t think of it after a while.’ How is it that so many soldiers get injured? I asked. ‘Actually, compared to the number of troops on active service it isn’t that many but part of the difficulty is due to the heavy body armour. If a soldier steps on a mine the amour protects his body but often blows off his limbs leaving terrible injuries.’
So, I wondered, did the soldiers accept Michael’s presence as an artist – or did they think it strange? ‘They accepted me as a welcome distraction from the military routines. There is much less rank demarcation out there – we all shared the same wash basins, loos and so on, so there was much more opportunity for getting to know people. I had the slight advantage of some shared experience as I’d had a commission as a young man in the Marines. Although soldiering has changed so much that my military experience in the 60s was as different to the modern soldier’s as mine was to the army in the first world war.’
What about artistic kit, did he carry much with him? ‘No, I just relied on watercolours, pencils, cameras and a sketch book – it all had to be mobile. The oil paintings were completed when I returned to Wandsworth. The regiment commissioned a painting that now hangs in the officers’ mess in Wellington Barracks’.
And what of the future, I ask Michael, who is a well-preserved 54? ‘I just want to continue painting. I love the process. It’s what gets me up in the morning. Since the death of Duncan Campbell, I have exhibited in various galleries in London and I have yet to find one the I feel is compatible with my work. There is very little property development with the depression at the moment so mural commissions have largely dried up.’ In the meantime, Michael works hard in his studio: ‘I just enjoy myself – painting is my life.’