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NATAL COLONIAL MILITARY UNIFORMS (article first published : 2007-05-9)

The May exhibition at Midlands Arts and Crafts Society (Macs) should bring in military buffs as well as art lovers. It is Natal Colonial Military Uniforms (1848-1877) by Andy May, being opened by Mark Coghlan on May 9 at 10h30am at the Macs Café Gallery. All are welcome.

May is a Scottish-born military uniform illustrator whose work is in museums and private collections around the world - at the last count he knew of 15 countries where it is held. He works in coloured pencils and in meticulous detail - even when a French Hussar uniform of the Napoleonic period has five rows of 22 buttons each, frogged with cords -each button has to be clearly shown.

The Macs exhibition focuses on Natal Colonial Military uniforms from 1848 to 1877, with 30 prints being displayed and on sale. There will also be a set of originals of Carbineer uniforms that May did a few years ago for the regiment and that has been loaned for the duration of the exhibition.

May had no formal art training apart from lessons at school in Scotland, but he has been drawing since he was ten years old, he tells me in a voice that leaves no doubt of his original home, even though he has been in this country since the 1970s. His fascination with military uniforms have seen him illustrate fighting men from all periods, right back to the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Vikings, Japanese Samurai warriors, Normans, knights in armour, British regiments at all periods and Zulu fighters. His favourite period is the American Civil War.

"When I was a boy, my uncle took me to see a Red Skelton comedy, and before the film they showed excerpts from The Birth of A Nation (made in 1915), a melodrama about the American Civil War. I saw the battle scenes, and that fascinated me," he says.

On the wall of his living room are a set of drawings of Vikings, done by May for his wife, Ingrid, who is also an artist and is of Scandinavian ancestry. The Viking warriors wear their colourful cloaks and carry their weapons and are both decorative and a historical record.

May has a library of books that illustrate uniforms and equipment of various periods and places. He also has contact with military historians and museums around the world. The Mays worked together on the Natal Mounted Rifles Museum in Durban - Ingrid painting the huge mural backdrops showing battle sites and other places of importance to the regiment, while Andy put together the exhibits.

After May has been telling me about his time in the army at Fort Klapperkop in Pretoria, his wife pipes up and says: "He was invited to join the army, you know. He didn't join in the usual way, but they wanted him for his knowledge."

May nods. He spent six years in the Permanent Force at Fort Klapperkop, with the rank of Sergeant, having been brought into the army as a military uniform artist and researcher, doing displays and in charge of the armoury - looking after both historical and current weapons. He was also allowed to wear a beard - unusual in the army. Ingrid had told the colonel she would divorce her husband if the army made him shave.

May's chosen subject matter might seem sombre, but it doesn't have to be. He has had some of his drawings printed onto teeshirts - and the Jacobite soldier at the time of the Battle of Culloden in Scotland in 1745 proved a winner at the Nottingham Road Highland gathering. Others who could adorn the chests of their supporters include a Boer fighter and a Gordon Highlander, both from the Anglo-Boer war, and a Zulu warrior and a British Infrantryman of the 24th Foot from the Anglo-Zulu War.

Most of May's work these days is commissioned. In recent years, he has done a set of 12 Zulu chiefs and kings, from 1600 to the present day, commissioned by a Battlefield lodge. Last year, a collector from Pretoria asked for a series of German SS uniforms, while another wanted 14 drawings of French Hussars - hence May's knowledge of just how many buttons they had on their tunics. There are military uniform buffs for all armies and all periods.

The vast store of knowledge he has gathered over the years has also been put to use on film - he worked on the uniform design for Zulu Dawn which was shot in KZN in the late 1970s; as the props buyer for the television series Shaka Zulu in 1986 where he found himself teaching the extras playing the redcoats to march, and he also worked on the props for an Austrian film, shot at the Lion Park.

May will be available at Macs on Friday and Saturday mornings during this month to answer questions and chat to visitors about his work. A4 colour prints as well as sets of cards will be available for sale at Macs.

Gallery hours are 08h00 to 16h00 Monday to Saturday. For more information, phone Macs on 033 386 6500 between 08h00 and 12h00 on weekdays. - Margaret von Klemperer




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