Norman Wilkinson was British, an artist, and had just returned from submarine patrol during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, where he realized that the British ships, painted black, made the perfect silhouette and the perfect target for a lurking U-boat. He had the credibility to make the Royal Navy listen to him, and the connections to find the artists to help him in the camouflage unit he set up. It was Wilkinson who coined the term “Dazzle Camouflage,” a system of confusion via the use of stripped designs. He got the Royal Academy to hand over twenty or eleven, depending upon the source you consult, female students who painted model ships in what Smithsonian Magazine called “an explosion of dissonant strips and swoops of contrasting colors.”
The models, hand-carved by Wilkinson himself, would be painted with designs created by the women and then inspected through a periscope, the perspective of a menacing submarine, ready to aim and fire a torpedo. Wilkinson knew that it would be impossible to hide a ship at sea but he could “break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as the course on which she was heading.” Wilkinson and his female staff were so successful with their camouflage designs that even King George V, a trained naval officer, was fooled as to the direction a ship was traveling. The black and white photographs of these ships painted in dazzle camouflage obscure the actual colors which included blues, greens, pinks and purples.
Among the artists recruited during this last year of the war was a Vorticist artist, Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949), a former intelligence officer, who, like Wilkinson, had served at Gallipoli. Like many of the war artists from England, he was a graduate of the Slade School of Fine Arts and a former student of the important teacher Henry Tonks, and it is possible that he met Wilkinson in the military theater in the east. In his essay for the Liverpool Biennial, “Edward Wadsworth and the Art of Dazzle Painting,”Robert Hewison explained how the artist became interested in dazzle design: Wilkinson realised that the answer was not to try to make the ship invisible, but to create an optical distortion of the shape of the vessel by breaking up its profile with stripes and curves painted in blues, greens, grays, pinks and purples. And so the art of Dazzle painting was born. This was not the first time that attempts had been made to camouflage ships, but thanks to Wilkinson’s connections, the Admiralty took up the idea, and from 1917 onwards designs were prepared in London, and then sent to the ports, where naval officers supervised the actual painting. Among them was Wadsworth, who worked first in Bristol, and then Liverpool. He did not design Dazzle schemes himself, but the parallels between the enormous abstract shapes that he was responsible for creating and the mechanical forms that had contributed to Vorticism must have inspired him. He produced a series of nine woodcuts of Dazzle-painted ships, all of which matched the visual dynamic of Dazzle painting with the stimulating contrast of black and white, density and void, achieved by bold designs cut ‘on the plank’ of the wood, so as to be able to achieve a satisfying largeness of scale.”
Although Wadsworth did not design the dazzle patterns themselves, he apparently supervised the painting of some 2000 ships during the War. Wadsworth had done abstract prints in the style of Vorticism during the war and responded enthusiastically to the strongly marked dazzle ships. As Peter Forbes noted, “It is paradoxical that Wilkinson was an old-fashioned realist painter, but his dazzle designs struck a chord in the Vorticist artists, who were applying bold, energetic, stylised patterns to their subject matter. Wadsworth was not especially interested in some of the more complex dazzle patterns: what he wanted was stripes. He is best known in the dazzle context for a painting he made in early 1919: Dazzle Ship in Dry Dock, Liverpool. This was the first painting he had produced since the war. During the war he had contented himself with woodcuts, some of which related to his dazzle work.”
The result of the work Wadsworth did with the Navy was a series of nine woodcuts of the amazing sight of stripped boats lined up in harbors and resting at dry dock. It is this series that made his post war reputation, keeping alive the memory of how a battalion of artists may have thwarted the German submariners.
In retrospect, it is curious that the Royal Navy had been so deaf for so long to the entreaties concerning camouflage, given that, since the Peninsula Campaign during the Napoleonic War, the elite regiments who engaged in skirmishing wore green uniforms to conceal their presence. Less than fifty years later, the British Army in India began to wear khaki to make soldiers “invisible in the land of dust.” By the twentieth century, the entire British army was wearing khaki, but apparently, the concept of hiding a ship at sea was too large a mental leap until Wilkinson stepped up. In their article for the Liverpool Biennial, “The Dazzle Ships that Fooled the Iron Fish,” Jeanne Robinson and Neil Johnson-Symington discussed the fact that in the early stages of dazzle camouflage designs the colors were many and bright, “violet, emerald, blue, orange,” but, because of the wear and tear of sea duty, it was impossible to continue with such elaborate schemes. The designers selected fewer colors but those that were strongly contrasted. For this same publication, The Story of Dazzle. Zebras, Artists, and Iron Fish, the article, “Designed to Dazzle” by Annette Wickham discussed the role of women as designers. By 1916, the males who would be students at the Royal Academy were diverted to the war effort, leaving the school for women. It was these students who were responsible for painting the designs. As Wickham wrote,
“An archive document recording students’ activities in 1917 identifies many as Red Cross workers while others simply have ‘war work’ written after their names. The Red Cross had set up its ‘Central Work Rooms’ at the Academy, where its volunteers produced supplies for the Front, a venture that even included spinning dog hair into yarn when wool supplies became short. The names of the women working on dazzle are not specified, perhaps for security reasons, but by Wilkinson’s own recollection he had soon co-opted a group of RA students to assist with his experiment. According to an Admiralty memo the team consisted of five male artists appointed as Lieutenants in the RNVR, two ‘men modellers’, one ‘lady modeller’ and eleven ‘lady clerks for colouring plans of ships’. Within a short time others were recruited and Wilkinson recalled having ‘about 20 girls’ on his staff. While the women clearly had a lower official status than some of the men, they appear to have been fully involved in the experimentation process and it is interesting that Wilkinson himself referred to them as ‘assistants’ rather than ‘clerks’ and emphasised that they were all specifically ‘chosen from various schools of art.’ This subtle difference in attitude may relate to the fact that among this team was his future wife, Eva Mackenzie, a graduate of Edinburgh School of Art. The dazzle section started work at the Royal Academy in June 1917 and the RA Annual Report written later the same year noted that ‘the scheme has developed to such an extent that a large staff of draughtsmen and women is employed, and three more of our rooms have been taken’, in addition to the two they were originally given. Shortly afterwards, however, a Zeppelin bomb landed on the Academy, damaging Gallery IX and some of the studios in the Schools corridor below. The Schools were closed until December because of the disruption, but Wilkinson’s team seems to have been unaffected: they were back in action by 18 October, when they welcomed King George VI, who is reported to have been duly ‘dazzled’ by the new form of camouflage they had created.”
The Americans, who had developed an extensive program of camouflage for land-based stationary objects, employed several schema for naval camouflage. The “Brush system” from Thayer and his partner Gerome (George de Forest) Brush (1855-1941), was based on countershading, the “Mackay System” used pointillism invented by William Andrew Mackay (), a New York artist, who assumed that the contrasting colors would fade to gray from a distance. Even inventor Thomas Edison () got in on the act, suggesting that a ship be covered with canvas painted like a cloud, an idea that proved to be incompatible with actual movement at sea.
According to Roy Behrens in an online extension of his book on camouflage, False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage, “In late 1917, the US Navy (working with the US Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation) officially gave its approval to six ship camouflage systems, named after their originators, including (artists) Gerome Brush, William Andrew MacKay, Lewis Herzog, Everett L. Warner, F.M. Watson, and (chemist) Maximillian Toch. For the rest of the war, according to Nancy Brush, her brother Gerome (along with other artists) was involved in supervising “the painting of merchant ships all along the eastern seaboard. He worked at Norfolk, Virginia, Boston Harbor, New York Harbor, and many other places. He trained men to do the painting according to Mr. [Abbott] Thayer’s theory [of countershading, in which] the color scheme for the ships was taken from the general coloring of a seagull, worked in two shades of gray and pure white, the underpart of everything being white.”
In the end, in that real theater of war itself, American ships were dazzled like their British counterparts to the admiration of the Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt. Historian Roy Behrens quoted the reactions of astonished journalists at the sight of the ships of the allies: It was “like being in the middle of a floating art museum,” or the spectacle resembled “so many floating cubist paintings” or a “cubist painting on a colossal scale” or the camouflage reminded the viewers of “a futurist bad dream.” An American newspaper compared the fleet to a “flock of sea-going Easter eggs.” The eggs sailed into history with indeterminate results—did dazzle camouflage work or not? We shall never know; the results were inconclusive. Unlike the camouflage for the Western Front, which set the standard for today, thanks to the invention of radar and sonar, the disguise techniques of the sea are no longer with us. But the memory of the dazzling dazzle designs lives on.