Friday, June 8, 2012

Sea Classics | Ship Camouflage

Edward Wadsworth, Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool (1919)

In the June 2012 issue of a newsstand magazine called Sea Classics, there is a pictorial article on "The How and Why of Warship Camouflage." A friend of mine, a WW2 navy veteran, told me about it, and I excitedly tracked it down. On the cover is an exquisite painting (although substantially altered) by British artist Edward Wadsworth, who was hand-picked by Norman Wilkinson during WWI to oversee the painting of camouflage schemes on dry docked ships in the harbors. Most likely, Wadsworth himself did not design any of the  dazzle painting schemes that were used; he simply adapted provided designs to fit specific vessels.

Wadsworth was a prominent Vorticist artist, and this particular painting (above) is his largest, best-known work. Titled Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool (1919), the original oil painting (which measures 120 inches high by 96 inches wide) is in the collection of  the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Unfortunately, the editors of Sea Classics decided not to give Wadsworth credit for his work (he isn't even mentioned), nor is there a note about its title and its whereabouts. That information is easily found—it only takes a minute—in the Wikipedia article on dazzle camouflage.

Equally disappointing is the article itself, which repeats old information (including mistakes) from forty years ago that has since been corrected and amplified by new research. For example, there is the familiar error of referring to American artist George de Forest Brush as Robert De Forest Brush (there was no person by that name). The naming error first occurred in US Navy records (c1899), and in 1971, it was repeated in an article on World War I ship camouflage by navy historian Robert Sumrall. At the time, a letter to the editor from a Brush relative pointed out the error, and the mistake was later reaffirmed by a penciled notation on a navy memorandum in the papers of Everett L. Warner, the American artist who directly oversaw a unit of marine camouflage artists in both World Wars. On his copy of the document, Warner circled "Robert" with a link to a note in the margin that reads "correction George." So why repeat that error and others? It looks like the answer is probably due to the amazingly outdated sources that were used in preparing the article. There's no bibliography for it, but at the end there is list of three books for "further reading," the most recent of which was published in 1975 (37 years ago). How unfortunate—ship camouflage is a fascinating aspect of modern history and one that deserves to be covered in a balanced and genuinely accurate way.