Monday, May 4, 2009
She came under rocket and mortar attack, almost got killed while spending a penny, and was a "sitting duck" for the enemy when she became stranded in the Iraqi desert.
Arabella Dorman got first hand experience of the danger, the fear and the isolation of conflict when she served as Britain's first official female war artist to go to the front line in Iraq.
Next week her paintings of British soldiers at war will go on show at an exhibition in London.
Dorman, 33, who studied art in London and Florence, went to southern Iraq in December 2006, a time of intense fighting between British troops and Iraqi insurgents.
"There were some very hairy moments but it was exciting and I came away with deep admiration for our soldiers," she told The Sunday Telegraph at her studio in Chelsea.
"At Basra Palace we were mortared up to eight times a day. And at another base we came under rocket attack three or four times a day," she said. "I usually had about 30 minutes sleep before the first siren went off.
"I had to jump out of my bunk bed, throw on my flak jacket, hit the deck and lie as flat as possible. I prayed that none of us would be killed. I was scared. I knew my life was in the lap of the gods."
The artist spent two weeks with three regiments in different areas: the Green Jackets at Basra Palace, the Queen's Own Gurkhas at Shaibah logistics base, 10 miles south-west of Basra, and the Queen's Royal Lancers in the Maysaan desert.
On patrol in the desert, a few miles from the Iranian border where British troops were trying to stop the flow of arms into Iraq, the soldiers ran into trouble: their ambulance was stuck in the marshes, two tanks became bogged down, and the recovery vehicle that tried to pull them out also became stuck.
"We waited for about seven hours, in pouring rain, and we were attracting the attention of the locals," Dorman said. "We were sitting ducks for the enemy. It was terrifying."
The soldiers eventually managed to get the tanks and the ambulance out, but the recovery vehicle would not budge and had to be abandoned. "That night we didn't set up our camp until after midnight," Dorman said.
Her most embarrassing – and potentially dangerous – moment came out in the desert, a few miles from the Iranian border.
The soldiers were in an old artillery position behind a large mound when she decided to scramble to the top and find a discreet place on the other side to answer a call of nature.
"The soldiers whistled and shouted at me to get down," she said. "I was visible to the enemy for miles around. I could have put us all in danger. It was a stupid thing to do and the soldiers teased me a lot about it afterwards."
The only other female British artist to go to the front line of a conflict was Linda Kitson, who went to the Falklands war in 1982.
The soldiers Dorman met, all men apart from a woman dog handler, were bemused by the presence of an artist in a war zone.
To break the ice she would do a quick charcoal portrait of one of them and soon had them all asking if they could be sketched too.
"They were real gentlemen," she said. "When we out on patrol, setting up camp, they would put up a camp bed and tarpaulin cover for me before they did their own."
Dorman, who uses watercolours, charcoal and oils for her work, said she was more interested in using her art to "evoke the emotions and psychological impact of war" than in depicting the "physical horror" of war.
She described the soldiers as "exceptional people doing extraordinary things. Their lives are very intense."
She said: "They can experience in one day what most people may not experience in a year: danger, fear, isolation, boredom, friendship, humour, bravery, honour and death."
There is uncertainty too. "They would sometimes wonder what they were doing out there," she said. "But they do it for each other and there is a fantastic camaraderie.
"I came away humbled by their professionalism and the way they put each other first."
Earlier this year Dorman was moved by an article in The Sunday Telegraph's Seven magazine about soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan who went to California to develop their skills as disabled athletes and possibly to take a step towards competing in the London Paralympics in 2012.
She expressed an interest in painting the wounded soldiers, and has already done portraits of two of them: Rory Mackenzie, who lost a leg in Iraq, and Jon-Allan Butterworth, who lost an arm to a rocket in Basra. Both will feature in the exhibition.
It is all a long way from her usual work, painting portraits of company chairmen, leading academics, judges, High Sheriffs and glamorous society women.
But Iraq has given her the taste for more and in September she goes to Afghanistan to spend time with 2 Rifles and seek inspiration from another conflict.
Frontlines – Images from Iraq is at the Frost and Reed gallery, King Street, London, SW1Y 6QP from 12th-30th May