Graeme Lothian: War Artist

The distant crack of a gunshot. Suddenly an agonising bolt of pain charges down his arm. His shattered camera hits the floor and his arm falls lifeless to his side. Blood runs down his leg and starts to pool on the ground. More gunfire, much louder and faster this time, crackles all around him. He lays down on the ground, shocked and in crippling pain.

Graeme Lothian

Graeme Lothian painting.

That was Helmand Province, Afghanistan, eight months ago. Today I am standing on a peaceful Mount Ephraim in the beautiful spring sunshine with the man from that opening paragraph. His name is Graeme Lothian and I am watching him paint.

Graeme Lothian

Graeme Lothian paints.

You may have already heard Graeme’s story, if not let me bring you up to speed. Graeme, an ex-paratrooper and SAS soldier, was one of only two official war artists serving the Armed Forces. Since a parachuting accident curtailed his military career he had spent over 30 years painting scenes of army life in major conflicts all over the world. He was on his fourth tour of Afghanistan when he was shot by a Taliban sniper.

Graeme Lothian

Graeme Lothian out on patrol just minutes before being hit by a sniper's bullet. Copyright Graeme Lothian.

He was out on patrol with troops from the 1st Mechanised Brigade taking research photographs for one of his paintings. He had walked to one of the support vehicles for a drink of water, and whilst making his way back towards the group a sniper’s bullet had ricocheted off the ground and hit him in the arm.

The bullet entered his arm just above the elbow, it travelled along the length of his forearm shattering bones, severing nerves and tearing ligaments, until finally exiting through the palm of his hand. On its way out the bullet destroyed the camera he was holding. If it wasn’t for that camera his fingers might not be in the same places they are today.

Graeme Lothian

Graeme Lothian painting in Camp Bastion. Copyright Graeme Lothian.

The realisation that the sniper had hit him in his painting arm was probably more painful than the bullet wound.

Graeme Lothian

Graeme Lothian painting.

He was airlifted to Camp Bastion where he underwent emergency surgery before being transported back to Blighty to a military hospital in Birmingham for more operations. Graeme says he was very lucky, "if the bullet had been six inches to the right it would've hit my spine".

I am noticeably taken aback at the exuberance that Graeme shows when telling me his story. He has probably seen more of Afghanistan than any soldier, and after witnessing limbs being amputated and seeing the victims of the havoc created by IEDs, I am amazed how positive he is by it all.

Graeme Lothian

Graeme Lothian painting.

Back again to the present day, to the peaceful surroundings of the Common, and the very beginning of this story. I had decided to go for a walk for a bit of fresh air and as I was meandering along I noticed, far off in the distance, an artist's easel perched atop Mount Ephraim. I ran up that hill like a greyhound out of a trap. This was when I first said hello to Graeme.

Over the course of a couple of days I spent about five hours interrupting Graeme from his painting and enjoying his seemingly endless stream of extraordinary stories. Now, if anyone needs to get their life into a novel, it's Graeme. His tales of flying into Camp Bastion at night, watching the sun set over Mount Doom, and patrolling with the tank regiment, amongst others, were frankly astonishing. But perhaps the most amazing of all the tidbits Graeme told me was the fact that this was the first time since his accident that he had picked up his brushes to paint. I asked him why he chose this particular view to do so.

Graeme Lothian

Graeme Lothian painting.

It turns out that the road along the top of Mount Ephraim is part of his regular commute between Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells and he'd always thought it one of the most picturesque views of town. I think we can all agree with that. So when the time came to begin exercising his painting hand it was this view that he knew he had to start with.

Graeme Lothian

Graeme Lothian's security pass.

So how has the injury affected his ability to put paint to canvas? "I can’t do this any more", he says frantically waving the brush up and down, "but apart from that it’s much the same”. From what I can see Graeme is not one of those people who's going to let anyone or anything defeat him.

As we stood and talked many people passed by, and this being Tunbridge Wells most of them stopped to chat and compliment Graeme on his work, one lady even commissioned a painting of her house.

Graeme Lothian

Graeme Lothian painting.

I caught up with Graeme later in the week to see how he was getting on. This time he had brought with him more than just his paints and brushes. He reached into his bag and brought out something wrapped in a camouflaged blanket. He rested it on a nearby rock and unfurled it. It was his broken camera. He handed it to me and I stood in awe for a while. In my hands I held something that not only had taken a hit from a bloodied Taliban bullet but had also saved the fingers of the man who stood next to me.

Graeme Lothian

Graeme's broken camera.

Graeme Lothian An Artist in London

An Artist in London by Graeme Lothian. Click to buy.

Sadly Graeme doesn’t have the funds to replace his once-prized camera. He recently wrote to Canon and explained his story in the hope of a replacement but they didn’t even bother to reply. Can you believe that? Anyway, saying that, he's now decided that he wants to keep it as a souvenir but would dearly love another. Canon, if you are reading this then you can reach Graeme here.

Amongst all the other things that Graeme had brought to show me was a copy of his latest book, An Artist in London. He thumbed through it showing me some of the works he’d created over the course of five years painting in the capital. He then flicked to the opening page, he had signed it for me. I was quite touched. This will sit in a very special place on my bookshelf. If you want a copy for yourself you can buy it from Amazon.

That all happened a few weeks ago - yep we are skipping forward in time again - and today I paid Graeme a visit at his home for tea and biscuits. We sat and shot the breeze for hours. As well as watching some of the videos that he had taken in Afghanistan we also went through the prototype of his latest book that he is just finishing, An Artist in Afghanistan, which tells the story of the Armed Forces in Afghanistan. Graeme wanted my opinion on how the book was coming along, I thought it was rather impressive indeed. It's a bit different from his other books, it's more educational and story-like than before, if you've ever wanted to see what it's like to be a soldier living and working at war in Afghanistan then this will be a book you will want to own.

What I had especially looked forward to most of all on my visit though was to see the finished painting, and here it is:

Graeme Lothian

Graeme Lothian's painting of Tunbridge Wells from Mount Ephraim.

Graeme Lothian

Graeme Lothian holding his painting of Tunbridge Wells from Mount Ephraim. You can see his battle scar on his hand in this picture.

Superb isn't it. I think he's depicted the scene beautifully don't you? I'm hoping that this will be the first of many for a future book about Tunbridge Wells (hint hint Graeme).

Of all the works he has created over the years what are his favourites? Graeme says he has three: the Scots Guards at Pan Kalay (pictured below), the Fighter Pilot of the Royal Air Force, and the Eagles over the Steppe.

Graeme Lothian

The Scots Guards at Pan Kalay. Copyright Graeme Lothian and Cranston Fine Arts.

If you wanted to see more of Graeme's work, not only can you buy it from Cranston Fine Arts or the Sevenoaks Art Shop, but you can see it hanging on many prestigious walls all over the world including The Royal Society of Medicine, The National Portrait Gallery, The Royal Hospital Chelsea, Oxford University, and even in the home of George Lucas.

I really enjoyed my time accompanying (annoying) Graeme whilst he worked, I meet a lot of people who are generous with their knowledge but Graeme is in another league, he loves to share stories of his travels and experiences all over the world and you could sit for days and listen to them. If you wanted to learn more about him you can read more about him on The Big Issue and the BBC, but to be honest the best place to hear his stories are whilst standing right next to him, so if you happen to see Graeme around town painting then stop and say hello, trust me it's worth it.

I can't wait to catch up with Graeme again over the summer and show you more of his paintings of Tunbridge Wells.

The 185-year-old New Patio

For the first time in 32 years you can walk on a sacred floor that once was graced by royalty and the nobility of Tunbridge Wells.

Over the past couple of weeks Trinity Theatre has been creating a new patio in their grounds.

"Why is that blog-worthy?" you may ask, "and what's the 32 year thing about?" you may ask again.

I shall explain.

When the church was converted to a theatre back in 1982 parts of the original floor were taken up to make way for the new seating and foyer. A false floor was created and the now surplus stone slabs were stored underneath it. Fast forward 31 years to last year when the café was expanded, the false floors were taken up and expanded into to create more storage and working space for the café. The problem was where to store the slabs that could no longer be hidden under the floor.

The same stone slabs in situ inside the church entrance.

Alex was pondering this conundrum when I bumped into him one morning. He explained to me that the stone slabs are part of the listed structure and as such cannot be moved from the land. He had a problem, where does Trinity store ten tonnes of stone?

“What about making a patio? Then they’d still be on church grounds” I remarked in an off-the-cuff manner. Well that was a couple of months ago and now the same local builders who did the café renovations, Shepherd & Sons, are putting the finishing touches to the rather smart new installation.

I think it's looking rather fantastic, don't you? To think this stone hasn't seen the light since the church was built in 1829!

The only obstacle was one of the gravestones which lies next to the patio, it has had to be moved to make way for new fencing and an expanded pathway. This is being carried out by the Diocese later in the spring and it will be moved to another part of the grounds with the rest of the headstones.

It turns out that Trinity has also begun refreshing the gardens too. With a little help from Homebase and a few volunteers new borders of plants have begun to appear, there's even a new rockery, all built with the sandstone that was recovered from the recent renovations.

Speaking of which, they are looking for a few volunteers to help with the gardens so if you fancy spending a couple of hours a week helping out then get in touch here.

I think the new patio is a rather smart addition to Trinity and should prove very popular. There surely can't be many places in the town centre where you can sit outside in such a nice green space and enjoy a drink.

I’m still working on Alex on the name The Grand Anke Patio though. I'll keep trying.

Hitting the Headlines

If being in The Times and The Daily Mail wasn’t exciting enough this week, we made it again yesterday with the news of our heritage plaques.

Tunbridge Wells in The Times and The Daily Mail

Copyright The Daily Mail and The Times.

I think it's best we skip over the Waitrose debate, that's for another day, let's talk plaques.

Amongst all the good news that plaques were up for grabs, it's the fact that Sid Vicious should get one that grabbed the headlines, and it's rather special because the suggestion was made right here on the blog by Jim Manson. Nice one, Jim!

The Vidler plaque that I have campaigned for successfully also made the article and should be a really proud moment for us all.

I shall be at the upcoming Civic Society meeting to go through the final shortlist of names so stay tuned to our Facebook Page and my Twitter to find out the news first.

Just goes to show that unless you say something your view won't be heard. There is still time to get your suggestions in for plaques so please comment, comment, comment.

Exclusive Ritz Cinema Site News

I received a very interesting email this morning from my mole deep inside the Town Hall and I can now exclusively reveal some juicy new details about the cinema site.

Danger Men at Work

This is the age of austerity; to that end Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has agreed with the The Carlyle Group that in lieu of payment of their unpaid business rates the Council would collect all of the bricks on site.

During the past few days surveyors have paid several visits to the site and it has been calculated that almost 90% of the bricks are in a reusable state. The bricks will be recycled and used in the construction of the new cultural hub extension planned for the Civic Centre. Using the recycled bricks in this way is expected to save the Council nearly £2m of the £12m cost.

Plans are also well underway for an Adopt-a-Brick Scheme in which anyone can pay £1 to take a brick from the cinema site and carry it across the road to Civic Way.

Contractors will begin forming a human chain across Mount Pleasant Road from 08:00 on the 2nd of April and as such major traffic delays are expected. The work is expected to take 13 years 5 months and 3 days.

Burlsem House

One of the last parts of the old Kent & Sussex Hospital site was being locked-up and prepared for demolition this week. I had just four hours to get there and photograph Burslem House before it was too late.

Burslem House

I arrived to a busy scene, porters were loading vans with furniture and trolleys full of unwanted possessions ready for the dump were being piled up outside. NHS staff were milling around inside making sure nothing was left behind. I didn't have much time before the keys were handed over to the demolition contractor so I quickly made my way in.

Not much was left inside. Aside from a scattering of old furniture, some worrying-looking stains, and a few dents in the carpet, it was pretty lifeless and looking very sorry for itself. Mind you I never got the chance to see it when it was full of people living there.

Burslem House

One of the many bedrooms on the upper floors.

The former nurse accommodation block was opened back in 1934 just a week after the official opening of the main hospital. It was opened by Robert Burslem who was the mayor of Tunbridge Wells from 1932 to 1934. He was a man who not only worked tirelessly to support the hospitals in the area but also to support the victims of war, he owned a stonemasons which specialised in the carving of names onto war memorials. After Mr Burslem died in 1960 the building was named in his honour.

Burslem House

Quiet please.

The top three floors were dedicated to living accommodation whilst the ground floor housed treatment rooms, offices, and physical rehabilitation facilities. The bedrooms upstairs were small but seemed to have everything you'd need and each floor had communal kitchens, laundries, and bathrooms - some of these had definitely seen better days. There were also resident lounges scattered throughout the floors where doctors and nurses could watch television, play pool, and get up to all sorts of other recreations.

Burslem House

One of the cleaner baths I found.

Whilst I was up on the top floor I couldn't resist a quick panorama of the work currently underway at Royal Wells Park. You can see just how big the site is from this picture can't you.

Royal Wells Park Panorama

Panorama of the Royal Wells Park building site from Burslem House. Click for larger.

So that looks like the last you'll see of the old site. Once Burslem House is gone the new offices and homes will start going up pretty quickly - in fact you can see from the photograph above that one block is halfway up already.

Burslem House

The main gymnasium.

I'd like to say a huge thank you to John Weeks for the very-early-morning email and subsequent permission to shoot inside, and in return I'd like to take this opportunity to quickly plug his book Bandages & Benevolence. It's a really terrific read on the history of the Tunbridge Wells Hospitals and contains loads of unique photography and material. The book is available from the hospital at Pembury (7am-7pm in the hospital restaurants), in Waterstones, or send a cheque for £10 (P&P free!) to: Bandages & Benevolence Book, Emergency Planning Unit, Level 3, Tunbridge Wells Hospital, Tonbridge Road, Pembury, Kent TN2 4QJ.

Burslem House

One of the few exterior details showing Pan, the god of shepherds and flocks, of mountain wilds, hunting and rustic music.

See lots more photos on our Tunbridge Wells Project.

I'd love to hear from you if lived inside Burslem, why not see if you can spot your room in the gallery (I think I got most of them, to be honest they all looked very similar after three hours) and let me know what it was like.

Hello

  • I am a spritely 30-something living with my beautiful wife in the most fabulous town in the entire world, Royal Tunbridge Wells.

    We love to soak up the culture, the lifestyle, the nature, the history, the people, the art, the architecture, and the countryside in this idyllic part of the Weald, and because we love our town so much we made our blogs to share it with the rest of you.

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