Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Camouflage Artist | Robert Webb Jr.

John Singer Sargent, The Hermit (detail), oil on canvas, 1908

Of late, we've been trying to find information about a little-known American artist named Robert (Bob) Webb, Jr. (1897-1987), who apparently served as a ship camoufleur during World War I.

He is interesting for other reasons as well: It seems that he assisted John Singer Sargent (by preparing the paints) when, in 1915, that artist was commissioned to paint a mural (The Triumph of Religion) for the Boston Public Library. According to Webb, he learned from that experience but Sargent paid him not a cent. After World War I, he moved to Florida, where he worked with other artist-designers in decorating the elaborate interior of Ca d'Zan (Venetian dialect for "house of John"), the palatial winter home of John and Mable Ringling (of Ringling Brothers Circus fame) in Sarasota. Decades later, in the 1960s, Webb returned to Florida to participate in the restoration of that mansion, now part of the Ringling Museum of Art. He also worked for Colonial Williamsburg for more than twenty years.

One of the sources I've found thus far is a 204-page book about Webb's life, titled Tramp Artist: The Life of Robert Webb Jr., compiled by his daughter, Thelma Webb Wright, and published in 2003. It features reproductions of numerous works (paintings, interior crafts and Williamsburg signs) and extended excerpts from his tape-recorded memories. The book is largely a tribute to Webb and his first wife Rosa (the author's mother), who died in 1974. I've also found an online source (dated 1999) that's also credited to Thelma Webb Wright, who was apparently at the time a volunteer at the Ringling Museum. A third source is a recent 312-page alternative biography called Apprentice to Master (Trafford Publishing, 2010), written by Webb's second wife, Katheryn Webb, whom he married in 1976.

Regarding Webb's service as a World War I camouflage artist, the two authors (combined with Webb's transcribed account) provide somewhat different narratives. According to the Wright biography, Webb enlisted in the Navy in 1918. Soon after, he was assigned to camouflage in Norfolk as a result of having been recommended for that by Webb's mentor, Massachusetts artist Frederick Mortimer Lamb (1861-1936) and Sargent (the two had met as students at the Académie Julian in Paris) . His commanding officer was Lieutenant-Commander Nathan Bushnell, who (according to Webb's first-person account) "was in charge of all camouflaging for the Navy" (this is contrary to anything I've ever heard) and was also the Chief of Naval Intelligence.

This is Webb's description of how he designed ship camouflage: "My buddy and I used to take photographs of the ships that were not camouflaged… Using the photos as a guide, we'd cut a silhouette out of masonite… I'd make the designs on the sides of the ships, and these other guys would color them in. …[You couldn't actually hide a ship] So I figured the only thing to do with them buggers is to fool them. So I'd paint a submarine on the side of the ship, and I'd write all kinds of cross lines, circles, everything, so they [the German U-boat commanders] couldn't get a line on it. The front of the ship, I'd paint a bow on it. I'd paint another bow, so when they come up she'd be going the other way" (Wright, pp. 14-15).

Wright's book cites another source, an article in the Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg), on April 12, 1986, in which Webb is quoted as follows: "Typical [camouflage] designs were angles and circles. I even painted a submarine on the side of one ship. Colors made no difference as long as they were strong, like dark blue, black or yellow. We made the craziest ships you ever saw in your life." Wright also notes that, years later, when the US entered World War II, Webb attempted to revive his ship camouflage efforts: "[He] had several dozen plywood silhouettes of ships cut and proceeded to paint camouflage designs on them… When he learned about radar and sonar, he said in disgust, 'The Navy used to have iron men and wooden ships, now they have wooden men and iron ships.' His wooden ships became kindling" (p. 18).

In Apprentice to Master, Webb's involvement in ship camouflage is discussed in greater detail. According to that author, Sargent was approached by Rear Admiral William Sims (head of the US Navy), who explained that "a new service was being set up within the Navy that would use art to protect troops, cargo and battleships from enemy torpedoes. It would be called a 'camouflage department.' The secretary asked Sargent's opinion as to what qualifications the men should have who would staff the new department… Sargent, in answering the Secretary of the Navy's request for qualifications of men to fill this roll as camouflage artists, proposed that his young friend Robert James Webb, Jr., be put in charge of the new department! Bob could set the standard for all the other recruits to the new camouflage department. Sargent offered to write Bob Webb a recommendation, which he did, there at the dinner table" (pp. 61-62).

Elsewhere in the same book, it is stated that Webb was "put in charge" of Navy camouflage (p. 83), that he served as  "chief camouflage artist" (p. 93), and that "The camouflage work he did…was unique and copied throughout the Navy" (p. 187). In the online book description at Amazon, an even stronger claim is made that Webb "went on to become the first camouflage artist in the Navy during WWI." Having researched and written about art and camouflage for forty years, I am astonished to learn this now. In all those years, I've never heard of Robert Webb, Jr., and I don't know any other source that claims he played such a prominent role in WWI naval camouflage. Needless to say, the search goes on.