WW1: How did an artist help Britain fight the war at sea?

How did an artist use Cubism to fight the war at sea?

Wilkinson's dazzling idea

In 1917, on a patrol ship in the dangerous waters around Britain, the artist and illustrator Norman Wilkinson had a brainwave.

As a Royal Navy volunteer in World War One, he had become all too aware of the threat from Germany’s U-boats.

Wilkinson decided he could use his artistic skills to protect Allied ships. He realised that it was impossible to paint a ship in camouflage that would hide it from the sights of a submarine commander. Instead, he proposed that the “extreme opposite” was the answer.

Rather than trying to make a ship vanish on the ocean waves, he developed a radical camouflage scheme that used bold shapes and violent contrasts of colour. His purpose was to confuse rather than conceal.

The art of confusion

Norman Wilkinson wrote to the Admiralty with his ideas for dazzle camouflage. Intrigued, they sent a ship to him at Devonport Naval Base. Wilkinson was ordered to oversee its painting to demonstrate how his plan would work.

Dr Sam Willis explains how dazzle camouflage was designed to help ships avoid enemy torpedoes. (With images from the Norman Wilkinson Estate, Imperial War Museum, Getty, Topfoto)

Painting the fleet

Wilkinson’s Dazzle Section developed hundreds of camouflage schemes, for large ships and small. Each side of a ship had a different pattern. One vessel was the enormous Olympic – sister ship of the Titanic. Olympic became a troop ship during WW1 and was repainted in dazzle. She shows some of the techniques used by dazzle designers. Bold shapes at the bow and stern break up the form of the vessel. Angled lines suggest the distinctive smokestacks could be leaning in another direction. And curves on the hull could be mistaken for the shape of the ‘bow wave’ – created by water at the front of a fast-moving ship.

The man behind the brush

Wilkinson’s dazzle designs have been compared to what in 1917 was considered a revolutionary movement in modern art, called cubism. It was made famous by artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

While there is an overlap in appearance between dazzle and cubist art, Wilkinson himself was anything but a modernist. He was a celebrated marine painter and talented poster artist.

He was commissioned to create paintings for the elegant smoking rooms on board the Titanic and the Olympic. Wilkinson was passionate about ships and the sea. It inspired him to travel from Europe, to the US, Bahamas and Brazil.

He also produced beautiful landscape art. His work was used by The London & North Western Railway and London Midland & Scottish Railway to advertise their routes.

Wilkinson’s art now takes pride of place in collections including the National Maritime Museum, Royal Academy of Arts and the Royal Society of British Artists.

Born in 1878, he studied at Portsmouth and Southsea School of Art, and found early work selling his drawings to newspapers. He built a career at the Illustrated London News before signing-up for the Navy after the outbreak of war in 1915.

On submarine patrol he faced the dangers of the Gallipoli campaign, then returned to Britain in 1917 to serve on a minesweeping ship. It was here that his idea for dazzle was born.

Top: Dublin and Holyhead. Middle: Coronation Scot Ascending Shap Fell. Bottom: View of Docks with SS Duke of Argyll at Quay. In the collection of the National Railway Museum. (© Norman Wilkinson Estate. Photo © IWM)

A colourful impact

In 1917 people were astounded by harbours full of colourful ships.

But some of the visual impact of Wilkinson’s camouflage is lost today in the black and white images we have of World War One. The striking colours can still be seen on hundreds of model ships in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

These were made by the Dazzle Section at the Royal Academy of Arts, at Burlington House in London. Scale models were painted and used to test dazzle designs. They were placed on a rotating turntable and viewed through a periscope.

This allowed Wilkinson’s team to see how dazzle distorted a ship’s form as if it were travelling in different directions. Wilkinson believed that using strong contrasts, with light and dark greys, blues and greens, was most effective.

Wilkinson appointed dock officers at ports around Britain. They supervised the painting of ships from the finished designs. One dock officer was the artist Edward Wadsworth. He was a founder of Vorticism - a British art movement that grew out of Cubism.

The Admiralty experimented with various camouflage ideas during WW1. They had considered similar proposals by US artist Abbot H Thayer and the Scottish zoologist John Graham Kerr.

However, it was Wilkinson’s scheme that won them over. After the war the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors awarded him £2000 and recognised him as the creator of dazzle.

Top: Original WW1 ship models painted to test dazzle camouflage schemes (© IWM). Bottom: Dazzle Section at work in Burlington House in 1917.

The legacy of dazzle

The effectiveness of dazzle camouflage was never scientifically proven in World War One. However, recent research from the University of Bristol that suggests it could still have a role on modern battlefields.

A study by the School of Experimental Psychology found dazzle can alter the perception of speed, as long as the target is moving fast enough. Participants saw two moving patterns on a computer screen, one plain and one dazzle. They were asked to estimate which was travelling faster. There was a reduction of around seven per cent in the perceived speed of some high contrast dazzle patterns.

This would not have made a difference to a WW1 U-boat commander hunting slow merchant ships. But it could make a difference today where handheld rocket propelled grenades are fired at short range against moving vehicles.

Dr Nick Scott-Samuel, who led the study, says: “In a typical situation involving an attack on a Land Rover, the reduction in perceived speed would be sufficient to make the grenade miss by about a metre. This could be the difference between survival or otherwise.”

Sam Willis examines the influence of dazzle beyond WW1. (Images from Getty, National Gallery of Canada)

Learn more about this topic:

WW1: Did the machine-gun save lives?
WW1: Why was the first German defeat in Africa?
WW1: What can today's soldiers learn?