Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Camouflage Artists | Davenport & Benrimo

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Three views of dazzle-painted USS Mount Vernon (1918)
The following is a newspaper article (JAMAICA WOMEN'S CLUB) that appeared in The Daily Long Island Farmer (Jamaica NY), January 9, 1919, p. 1—

The program for the January meeting of the Jamaica Woman's Club yesterday was in charge of the Arts and Crafts Department of which Mrs. J.T. Cooley is chairman. Mrs. Cooley had succeeded in procuring as speakers, Messrs. Henry Davenport, a portrait painter of Boston, and Thomas B.[sic] Benrimo, a magazine illustrator. These artists responded to their country's first call for camoufleurs, and as such have been working on boats in New York Harbor for many months. The father of naval camouflage is Wm. A. Mackey [should read William Andrew Mackay], lately returned from France. The French has used land camouflage for some time. Naval camouflage has been a great success, as out of 150[sic] boats* so treated by the United States, none have been sunk and only two or three hit. The object at first was to render boats invisible, but owing to changing clouds, light and shade, this became impossible and the best plan was found to deceive the eye of the enemy as to the direction in which the boat was proceeding. This was accomplished by means of disappearing and converging lines, black, white and gray being the colors most effective.

It has been a tedious and most difficult job for these artists, for besides a long day at work, 7 days in the week, the boats themselves were not easy to decorate, as on one side they were unloaded of their cargoes and on the other, perhaps loaded. All the work had to be done while ships were in port and besides the loading and unloading there were the usual number of mechanics on board, clearing, painting and repairing. The original plans of working were made at Washington [DC, at the Design Subsection of the Navy's camouflage unit] and might or might not fit the boat they were designed for. Much of the actual work or painting—the large masses—was done by Swedes with huge brushes, but the marking out and finishing was done by these patriotic artists who were accustomed to much finer and more congenial work.

Mr. Benrimo said that the English had adopted our idea of camouflage and had made it much finer, and been wonderfully successful in work turned out.

The object of all the different methods was to apparently turn the course of the boat so that submarine commanders would make wrong sights. Mr. Benrimo in conjunction with this spoke of the importance of painting out prominent parts of a boat using massed color, and bringing different surfaces all on one plane.

Mr. Davenport spoke of the difficulties of actually applying the designs and paint. His talk was very humorous and both he and Mr. Benrimo made one realize how portrait painters can pitch into work wholly foreign to them and accomplish something really big, while the public regards it as picturesque and amusing.

* This may be a printing error since, according to Harold Van Buskirk (the executive officer in charge of the Navy's two-pronged Camouflage Section), more than 1250 US ships were dazzle-painted prior to 1919.

There is more to know about Messrs. Davenport and Benrimo. American painter Henry Davenport (1881-1965) was born in Brookline MA. A Harvard graduate, he went to Paris to study architecture but turned instead to painting. Returning in 1914, he studied at Provincetown MA under Charles Hawthorne and George Elmer Browne, then founded his own school in Paris in 1916. Later, he taught studio art and art history at Yale University. In Richard H. Love's fascinating book on Carl W. Peters: American Scene Painter (NY: University of Rochester Press, 1999), there is a suspect statement that claims that "In the New York area, the artist in charge of camouflaging ships in military service during World War I was Henry Davenport, an accomplished painter who had worked in Europe." On the contrary, William Andrew Mackay was in charge of the New York civilian camoufleurs.

As for Thomas D[uncan] Benrimo (1887-1958), he is fairly well-known as a magazine illustrator and early Modernist painter. He also worked successfully as a theatrical designer. His wartime service (during which he is said to have worked with Mackay) is described as follows in David L. Witt, Modernists in Taos (Santa Fe NM: Red Crane Books, 2002):

Benrimo became a lecturer in camouflage methods, training others in this art while at the same time gaining experience valuable to his later teaching career. Using tape measures, chalk lines, and rules, the camoufleur marked out the design on the ship and supervised quality control in the actual paint application…[he] apparently thought this design experience important because he kept his lecture notes and drawings (pp. 72-73).

It is of curious interest that Benrimo, while on the faculty at Pratt Institute (1935-39), was an influential teacher for graphic designer Gene Federico, who himself served as a camoufleur during World War II.