This post is the first in what we hope will be a series, concerning some of the 'not so frequently asked questions' that we often get in the library or E-library.
This particular topic was inspired by a telephone conversation involving myself and a professor who was writing a paper on Norman Wilkinson and dazzle painting. I was on E-library duty at the time and had never heard of dazzle painting. In a somewhat sheepish tone of voice I admitted to the gentleman that I lacked knowledge in this area. He was more than happy to feed my dazzle painting-starved brain and by the end of our verbal exchange I was an avid fan of this form of camouflage and its disputed creator, Mr Wilkinson.
I digress – to dazzle painting. Who would have thought that George Braque and Picasso, to name a few, would be responsible for camouflaging warships to protect them from the enemy in World War one? Yet dazzle painting, inspired by their work and others, did exactly this. The brainchild of the aforementioned Norman Wilkinson (Royal navy lieutenant and marine painter/poster artist) it proved a saviour on many occasions.
How did it work? The success rate of U boats called for drastic measures, and as vessels could not become ‘invisible’ on the waves of war, the idea was put forward to distort their courses instead. This ‘course distortion’ was made possible by painting vessels in an array of designs. These designs, it was hoped, would confuse the enemy where the location of the ship was concerned. Or in the words of the great man (Wilkinson) himself:
‘Dazzle painting so called officially, had one purpose in view only, viz, to upset a submarine commander’s estimate of a vessel’s course when carrying out an attack with torpedo.’ (Letter to The Times – Jun 9, 1919).
For a submarine commander’s attack to be successful, the estimation of the vessel’s course had to be precise. Dazzle painting played havoc with these estimations - and the minds of the commanders no doubt!
Working in a spare classroom at the Royal Academy of Art, Wilkinson and a team of artists, model makers, and art students worked to the following criteria:
•A model of ship was made to scale
•It was painted in wash colours for rapid alteration
•It was then studied on a prepared theatre through a submarine periscope using
•The model was then painted in a successful evolved distortion design and handed
to the plan maker who copied it on to a 1/16th inch profile plan of the ship on white
paper showing port and starboard side
•The plan was then sent to the outport officer to oversee the transformation of the
By June 1917 more than 2,300 British warships had been ‘dazzle painted.’ In a harbour as many as one hundred ships could be seen being dazzle painted at one time.
Did it work? Opinion is divided and the British Admiralty, in particular, remained sceptical of its purpose. However US sources (who embraced the scheme following a visit to England by Admiral William S Sims of the US Navy) claimed that less than 1% of dazzle ships were sunk by torpedoes.
In September 1918 The British Admiralty committee concluded that there was no concrete evidence that dazzle painting was effective as a means of defence but that it had caused an ‘undoubted increase’ in the confidence and morale of the crew on a dazzle-painted ship.
Either way, the close of the war and the requirement for ‘periodic repainting’ meant that dazzle painting sank to the depths of obscurity from which it came. But for me, it has just resurfaced.
If this topic has interested you and you'd like to know more, why not indulge in a little further investigation via the library and E-library?
There are several articles available via our subscription resources in the E-library:
Norman Wilkinson - Letter to the Times – Jun 9, 1919 pg 6; Issue 42121; col E and other letters (Times Digital Archive)
The role of artists in ship camouflage during World War 1 by Roy R Behrens. Leonardo, Vol. 32, No. 1. (JSTOR journal archive)
A selection I have looked at include:
Dazzle painting : art as camouflage, camouflage as art : a joint project involving Maritime Museum `Prins Hendrik' and Stichting Kunstprojecten
A brush with life, by Norman Wilkinson.
The war at sea : 1939-1945 : a series of pictures painted by Norman Wilkinson and presented by him to the Nation for the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Or, visit the Queens House and view some of Wilkinson's work, which is on display alongside other artists who have links to Dazzle painting, such as Herbert Barnard John Everett.
True or false: One of Wilkinson’s paintings hung in the smoking room of the Titanic – which would have benefited from dazzle painting had its enemy been a torpedo and not an iceberg!
Mary (Customer services assistant - Library)
Visitor notice: On Sunday 4 March Cutty Sark and the museum car park will be closed for the Vitality Big Half Marathon. All other museums will be open as normal and DLR and rail links will be running. Find out about road closures