Paul Preston: 'I put down my hammer and it went rusty'

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On Paul Preston's workbench, in the abandoned nudist camp he now calls home, there is a packet of incense sticks and a pair of tweezers. They are covered in dust; he has saved them for moments like this. "It's my way of telling people when it's time for them to leave," said Preston. "I light a stick, and when it's burned down, their time's up."

He took one out of the packet. "A whole stick lasts 40 minutes. If I want them out faster, I nip it shorter with the tweezers. It's not a perfect system," he said, "but it works." At this point I must have raised an eyebrow. "That," he said, "is an expression I have never seen before. Where does that gesture come from?" It was something I grew up with, I told him; if he liked, he could think of it as Mancunian. "Mancunian my arse," Preston said. "Gorillas do it."

Interviewing Paul Preston is not a straightforward experience; it is a very long time since an outsider even got near his incense, and it has taken me the best part of a year to get to this point. When I first approached him he wrote back quickly, agreeing in principle to a meeting, but demanding "a few rounds of fax tennis first". There followed months of surreal communication from the artist, who insisted on being addressed only as "Red Mole". In his last fax before we met, he included a warning. "On no account," he wrote, "refer to me as a genius. It's quite unwarranted, and people who have used it have not prospered."

Even so, it is hard to think how else to describe Paul Preston. Though you might not guess it from his surroundings ­ a clutch of crumbling outhouses that have been reinforced using old caravan doors and corrugated iron ­ his work has been bought by John Cleese, Stanley Kubrick and Charlie Watts. He lives here with his partner Jean, herself a highly regarded landscape painter, and their two children; their home is hidden away in a remote area of Pembrokeshire, near St David's. Preston, according to local rumour, is occasionally sighted roaming the fields after dark, poaching rabbits. His wardrobe might have been modelled on Jesse from The Fast Show, and yet his work is exhibited in the most prestigious London galleries. According to Barbara Cartlidge, world doyenne of art jewellery, alongside Paul Preston's work "the Cartier tigers look as if they fell out of a Christmas cracker".

Preston, who is 58, is best known for his brooches in silver and gold. Some show scenes he observed in his previous career as a deep-sea diver; others celebrate his alter ego the mole, its snout raised to the heavens in delight, or buried in honest toil, or despair. Few people who have held one of these pieces in their hand ever forget the experience. It isn't simply the intricate craftsmanship ­ Preston mixes his own alloys, combining 18-carat gold with copper, zinc or palladium, which can produce any colour from red through to deep violet ­ it has to do with the fact that something so tiny (most are just two or three inches long) can express such humour, joy and vitality.

I saw my first Paul Preston ring ­ a pond scene, cast in silver, with water lilies, carp and a mad-eyed frog ­ six years ago, on the finger of a stranger one Saturday afternoon in a Croydon wine bar. The following week I found myself in Kensington ordering one. I've bought other Paul Preston rings since ­ they cost about £70 ­ and I've been back three times to order replacements for ones that I've lost. I've always reported the loss ­ the last time I dropped one it was in a church café in north London, and I was back within the hour ­ but they've never been returned. There is some lost property even vicars don't hand in. Like Tiger Woods, Damien Hirst or Muhammad Ali, Preston has the rare talent of attracting people who have no previous interest in his line of work. His work was already rare when, in April 1997, suffering from clinical depression, he stopped working altogether.

He had suggested I stay at the Warpool Court Hotel in St David's, one of Britain's most picturesque and luxurious hotels. He walked into the lobby wearing weatherbeaten shorts, a T-shirt and a battered canvas hat, and he radiated a certain unease. He has a kind of manic self-belief that recalls a lost generation of film stars. Something about him reminded me strongly of Peter Finch: not so much the urbane ladies' man in Far from the Madding Crowd, more Howard Beale, the berserk newscaster in Network. He led the way out to his ancient Renault. It is dilapidated but proved still capable of great speed, on a variety of surfaces.

Preston is abstemious when at the wheel, and consequently does his driving mainly in the morning. "I'm a bit concerned about his drinking," one source had told me. "He's getting through three or four litres a day." If it was weak British draught lager, I said, that might not be too damaging. "Oh no," came the reply. "It isn't weak draught lager. It isn't lager. It's Côtes du Rhône."

Hopeful nudists still show up at Paul Preston's shacks from time to time. The family live in the largest building of what was the Pembrokeshire Sunshine Camp, but Preston spends most of his time in an outhouse, which he calls Planet Mole. It was formerly the naturists' sauna; when he moved in, the shape of buttocks could be distinguished, outlined in grease marks, against the walls. Now, it is cluttered with Preston's trophies: a random glance reveals a set of boomerangs, a brass porthole and a half-empty bottle of shotgun lubricant. He comes here every day to compose the elegant line drawings that used to form the basis of his work in precious metal, or just to sit. It's been like that for four years; ever since Preston made the private declaration that ­ to misquote Howard Beale's most famous line ­ "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to make it any more."

"I'd had depression before," Preston told me, "but this was much worse. And then I got this tax demand, and I said to myself, if I don't get a cheque by April the first, then I am going to go mad. The first of April came," he recalled. "There was no cheque. And so I put my hammer down. I put it down, and it went rusty. I had held that hammer in my hand every day for 30 years. It had become part of me."

Preston was born in Leeds, where his father was a commercial salesman. He left architecture school in Oxford with a double First, and practised briefly as an architect in Northampton ­ a frightening thought in itself ­ but soon gave it up and moved down to join his widowed mother in Cornwall. There he drifted into working as a diver, gathering scrap metal from wrecks.

"I remember going to one party when I was just getting to know the divers' social habits," he said. "I was dancing away thinking ­ well, can I take this girl home? I hadn't noticed that Pete Milson, this huge Viking of a man, had gone upstairs. He took off all his clothes, made this great peacock's fan out of The Times, and clamped it between his buttocks, then drenched it in lighter fuel and set fire to it. Then," Preston added, "he dived off the landing, down into the crowd."

Preston, who remains essentially self-taught, was already 30 when he took his own work to Barbara Cartlidge, whose Electrum Gallery in London has exhibited his work for 25 years. One of the extraordinary things about Preston is the way he has managed to develop, against a background of limited material success, the kind of attributes it usually takes great wealth, and decades of adulation, to sustain: a robust ego, total self-absorption, and a blithe indifference to conventions of dress or behaviour he regards as pointless.

We sat in Planet Mole for several hours and, as night began to fall, the debris in Preston's workshop had been augmented by a small pile of empty bottles of Crozes Hermitage. Against the background of his own audio tapes ­ strange compilations, which sample clips of vintage actors such as Trevor Howard into rock music ­ he spoke with mounting enthusiasm on a range of subjects: the birthing habits of the Chamois deer, the failings of Michael Portillo, and the difficulties of performing an autopsy on an egg-bound hen, which he described in grotesque detail.

"OK," Preston said. "I know that look. That look says 'I have wasted my train fare.'" Go on, I told him, get your incense sticks out, I don't care. "If you don't watch it," Preston replied, "I won't light my incense. I'll start banging on about crop circles."

Was there any chance, I wondered, that he might start working again? "It's not that I can't work," he explained to me. "I just don't have the inclination. But I have begun to get ideas, and I'm writing them down. Jewellery," he said, "has been my entire life. I believe ­ I hope ­ that a lot of it is like nothing you can see anywhere else. If that's true, then it would mean I could say that I've done something, at least."

It is an irony of Paul Preston's life, I suggested to Barbara Cartlidge, that had he worked with less precious materials, he might have been more readily recognised as a national treasure. "His landscapes and his animals ­ they speak to you," she said. "They get to you. They move you. They show you a dimension you never thought of before. That is what a great work of art is, whatever the material."

She didn't speculate as to when Red Mole might resurface, blinking, into the daylight world of work. But while I was writing this, I spoke to a friend of Preston's who had just returned from Pembrokeshire. She told me that, just recently, the weird soundtrack that seeps out from under the door of his workshop ­ the music, the sampled voice of Trevor Howard, and the popping of corks ­ has been punctuated by another, less familiar sound: the gentle tapping of a jeweller's hammer.

A version of this article previously appeared in 'GQ' magazine