The war reporter is, of course, a familiar sight in a modern conflict, the war photographer too. The war artist, however? Not so much. And with good reason: war zones are dangerous places, where news-gathering is done in a necessary rush. The hapless artist, meanwhile, has to get his paints out, his paper, and then find somewhere comfortable to perch. And what if it rains?
Nevertheless, Londoner George Butler, 28, is just that, a 21st-century anachronism who has spent the past half decade travelling the world’s hotspots to draw everything from tuberculosis sufferers in India to the devastation in Syria, for newspapers and charities.
“I’m not trying to compete with the photographer because I couldn’t,” he says. “What I’m trying to do is a little different. While the press go off chasing reaction around, say, Helmand province, I offer a more humane side, something more intimate. I tend to gravitate towards places when the fighting has stopped: the field hospitals, the refugees coming back to what was once their home…”
Butler calls himself an adventurer first and foremost, and while he doesn’t exclusively document conflict – he drew the 2011 Royal Wedding, for example, and will be wading through the mud at Glastonbury next weekend – he does gravitate towards those parts of the world in which the normal and the humdrum are conspicuous by their absence. He presumably risks his life, then, every time he starts a sketch?
“Well, I did narrowly avoid kidnap in Mali once,” he says, “but I often travel with charities, or with armies, so I’m well protected; safe.”
“This is a medium that was used for 150 years before photography came along. It’s a proven technique, and it’s only since we have become so obsessed with photography that it has faded away. There are very few people who do what I do.”
An exhibition of George Butler’s work will be at the Illustration Cupboard Gallery, London SW1 (www.illustration cupboard.com), 13 July to 3 August