St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery

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By Paul Atterbury
Art historian and presenter of the BBC's Antiques Roadshow

In 1917, the First World War was a struggle for the Allies. There was stalemate on the Western Front, things were going badly in Italy and the Middle East was still unresolved. However, the biggest threat came from the sea. German submarines were sinking so many merchant vessels that there was a real risk that Britain could be starved into submission. Desperate times inspired new ideas, two of which were crucial to the ultimate success of the Allies in 1918. The first was the convoy system, whereby merchant ships were assembled into groups protected by naval vessels, a technique that greatly hindered the operation of the U-boats, and the second was Dazzle.

Early in 1917 a young naval officer who was also a successful maritime painter came up with a novel way to camouflage ships. His idea was that, instead of trying to hide ships, which was clearly impossible, they could be painted in ways that made them more visible. The idea was based both on his observations as an artist of the effects of light at sea, and on studies of wildlife and nature. He took the idea to the Admiralty which by then was clinging at straws and so they agreed to give it a trial. A ship was painted in a bright abstract patterned scheme designed by Wilkinson, and sea trials quickly indicated that it worked. In essence, the dramatic patterns made it hard for the submarine commander, in the few seconds available to him through the periscope, to judge correctly the speed and course of the vessel. This moment of uncertainty could mean that either the torpedo was not fired in time, or that it was fired but missed. The slow underwater speed of the submarine made it hard to line up a second shot and surfacing to gain speed would bring the escorting destroyers onto the submarine.

The Admiralty quickly set up a Dazzle Section in Burlington House in London, headed by Wilkinson and staffed by men and women, many of whom were naval officers with an art background. A periscope was installed and dazzle patterns, created by the staff and custom made for every ship, were painted onto models and tried out on a turntable set up in front of the periscope. Successful designs were then turned into scale plans, which were sent to the dockyards to be painted onto the ships. Very rapidly the British merchant fleet was dazzled, from giant liners like the Aquitania to small coasters, along with some warships and, under Wilkinson’s guidance, a similar scheme was developed in the United States. Docks and harbours were turned into extraordinary displays of colour and pattern and convoys, hitherto dull and grey, became exciting visual spectacles. Most important, it worked, and the numbers of lost merchant vessels dropped rapidly. In effect, the submarine was defeated.

When I was a student in the early 1970s, studying the History of Art at the University of East Anglia, I decided to write my thesis on dazzle. No one knew much about it and there was a general assumption that, because of their abstraction, dazzle patterns had been created by avant garde artists, including members of the Vorticist group. My research soon proved that this was not the case, and I was able to establish that the creator was actually Norman Wilkinson, then a largely forgotten maritime painter best known for his railway poster designs. Luckily, I was greatly helped by Norman Wilkinson’s family, notably his son Rodney, who generously gave me access to all his father papers, which turned out to be, among other things, drawers full of dazzle material. My thesis thus turned out to be the first modern study of the dazzle scheme. At the time I wanted to follow up with a book and an exhibition, but nothing happened.

Finally, the dazzle story has been told, first by James Taylor’s book, published last year, and by this exhibition at St Barbe Gallery in Lymington.

 It is extraordinary that so important a story, in which the very future of Britain hung in the balance, has until now not been told. National galleries and museums in London and elsewhere have certainly missed a trick by ignoring this great story.

The exhibition tells the story of dazzle, from Wilkinson’s original idea to the creation of the designs and their application to ships of all kinds. It explains the techniques clearly and shows paintings and drawings by Wilkinson and other members of the Dazzle Section, all featuring dazzled ships in various settings. By these, it is possible to gain a sense of the impact at the time of all this apparently abstract pattern and colour.  The final part of the exhibition is also intriguing, showing the huge effect of dazzle ships upon artists who had little or nothing to do with the scheme. Many artists were clearly excited by the sight of dazzled ships, notably Edward Wadsworth, the former Vorticist, and J D Ferguson, the Scottish colourist. The paintings in this room make it certain that dazzle had a powerful, and unique impact upon avant garde art and design, in ways that make it far more important than any other military camouflage scheme of any period.

Paul Atterbury is a British antiques expert, probably best known for his many appearances since 1979 on the BBC TV programme Antiques Roadshow.  He specialises in the art, architecture, design and decorative arts of the 19th and 20th centuries.