Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ship Camouflage | Wartime Dazzle Painting

L. Campbell Taylor (1919), watercolor
In the last year of World War 1, a writer named Hugh Hurst published an illustrated article on ship camouflage titled "Dazzle-Painting in War-Time" in International Studio (September 1919, pp. 93-99). It remains one of the most eloquent essays on the subject, and is of additional interest because it included reproductions of a handful of wonderful paintings of camouflaged ships in the settings of various harbors. The artists represented were (Reginald) Guy Kortright, John Everett (whom we've blogged about before), and L. Campbell Taylor, all of whom were "war artists," in the sense that they had been assigned not to design camouflage but to record their encounters with these entrancing while also bewildering forms. 

In Hurst's article, one of the paintings that was reproduced in color (as shown above) was Taylor's Dazzle Ships in Canada Dock, Liverpool. Watercolor, 1919. We found it well worth the sleuthing to track down an original copy of Hurst's article (it's reasonably easy to find through inter-library loan, and there is an online full view also*). In addition, the entire article and its illustrations have been reprinted (albeit in black and white only) in our recent collection, SHIP SHAPE: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook (2012). Here are the opening paragraphs of Hugh Hurst's delightful essay—

To the lover of the ship for the ship’s sake the appearance of our docks in the great ports during the war may perhaps have come as somewhat of a shock, but to the artist the transformation from a monotonous uniformity to a scene presenting a pageant-like array of strong color and strange designs this change can have been nothing but a joy. Certainly it has proved to many painters not merely a stimulus to record one outward aspect of the war, but a direct source of inspiration towards design and color. It was the artist who in devising means for saving tonnage provided, by accident as it were, these splendid scenes of fleets clothed in their war paint, such as were never before and, possibly, may never again be seen.

Although the accompanying drawings naturally lose some of their effect by being reproduced in black and white, to the uninitiated they may perhaps appear sufficiently bizarre. Those who were not fortunate enough to see the docks at one of our great ports during the war may imagine the arrival of a convoy—or, as frequently occurred, two at a time—of these painted ships, and the many miles of docks crowded with vessels of all sorts, from the stately Atlantic liner to the humbler craft bearing its cargo of coal or palm oil, each resplendent with a variety of bright-hued patterns, up-to-date designs of stripes in black and white or pale blue and deep ultramarine, and earlier designs of curves, patches, and semicircles. Take all these, huddle them together in what appears to be hopeless confusion, but which in reality is perfect order, bow and stern pointing in all directions, mix a little sunshine, add the varied and sparkling reflections, stir the hotchpotch up with smoke, life, and incessant movement, and it can safely be said that the word “dazzle” is not far from the mark. 

* Thanks to John Simpson for the link.