Book review: A War Artist’s Diary

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Peter Badcock’s A War Artist’s Diary celebrates in drawings and poetry the lives of the men and women, servicemen and civilians, who were caught up in the conflicts of southern Africa between the mid-1960s and 1981.

“In essence these conflicts, dating back very many decades and even centuries, are the subject of A War Artist’s Diary and reflect my pursuit of shadows, faces and images in what I can only hope will be the last wars on the southern tip of Africa,” Badcock writes of his latest book, which is based on his body of work created between 1977 and 1981, drawing together three books he produced over this time: Shadows of War, published in 1978, Faces of War, published in 1980, and Images of War (1981).

Badcock decided to publish A War Artist’s Diary after being inundated with requests for his three long out-of-print books. Due to local and international demand, “it therefore seemed appropriate to bring together the best of the drawings and verse involved to meet this demand and allow me to reminisce a little – about other times and places in a soon to be forgotten history.”

Badcock was born in Pretoria in 1949 but grew up in Rhodesia – he describes himself as a ‘colonial boy’ and an accidental war artist. First drawing the Rhodesian Bush War (Shadows of War and Faces of War), his third book (Images of War) covered the conflict in Angola. In essence, all three cover the protracted battles for the survival of essentially white regimes in Southern Africa that intertwined Rhodesian and South African policemen, troops, Special Forces and airmen in both theatres. Badcock was able to experience a lot of this first hand through his service with the Rhodesian Police Reserve Reconnaissance Unit, Internal Affairs National Service Unit, and then being embedded with the Rhodesian military (where he carried a rifle) and South African Defence Force.

“A War Artists’ Diary is not intended to eulogise or defend either side in the tumultuous history of these events but to capture the human dimension of men and women at war. In Rhodesia, because I grew up there and served as a Territorial Officer, my bias in inevitably toward the Rhodesian Security Forces involved. This same bias is evident in my coverage of the South and South West African Border War but I make no excuse for this,” he writes.

Badcock is neither a believer in war nor an advocate for the social upheaval and destruction in brings. He quotes Lionel Abrahams: “When war breaks out, both sides have lost.” Indeed, it has been remarked that the dominating mood and impression of his drawings is of the futility of war and the tragic waste and suffering on people in this situation, and of the precarious dignity to be wrung from it.

“I share a sense of disillusionment with those war artists and poets who went before me. As young men continue to fight old men’s wars in pursuit of very little, perhaps it’s right, even necessary, to capture that same disillusionment in the faces of those who waited, fought and sometimes died,” Badcock writes.

“It is precisely the capture of emotions in the private moments of those involved that quite accidentally drew me into the field in the first instance. My work does not attempt the broad sweep of massed ranks so beloved by early war artists but instead focuses on the face of a battle-fatigued trooper or the mindless abstraction of a soldier at rest. It is, for me at least, these faces that map the mind-numbing inaction and, quite unexpectantly, the sudden heat of battle and its resultant stress.”

Many of Badcock’s drawings are of people – civilian men, women and children, policemen and soldiers going about their business – cleaning equipment, shoeing horses – as well as soldiers in combat and after. About two thirds of A War Artist’s Diary covers Rhodesia, with the remainder (from Images of War) focussing on South Africa’s Border War where Badcock explored the human experience of South and South West Africans at war.

Obviously while much of A War Artist’s Diary is made up of images, many poems accompany the drawings, along with notes giving more background on the scene. Badcock believes the combination of detailed drawings and verse adds weight to the content of the book.

That it took 40-50 hours to complete a single drawing is evident in the detail of each, and Badcock’s extraordinary drawings provide detail and pathos that it is often hard to convey through photography.

A War Artist’s Diary is a lavishly produced and illustrated book that is an excellent addition to one’s coffee table collection, giving new understanding for those who were not there, in what Badcock describes as less a celebration of the past than a recognition of those involved.

Publisher: ‎Lizard’s Leap Press
Available direct from the publisher at www.peterbadcock.com or from leading independent bookstores nationally
Publication date: ‎August 2021
186 pages
ASIN: B09C698335