Friday, September 4, 2015

Camouflage Artist | Robert Lawson

Vintage pencil sharpener (c1938). P.D. Whitson Collection.
Above Vintage pencil sharpener by Walt Disney Enterprises, which produced an animated film of The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf in 1938. Two years earlier, Robert Lawson had illustrated the original book version (New York: Viking 1936). P.D. Whitson Collection.


The papers of American illustrator and US Army camouflage artist Robert Lawson (1892-1957) are in the University of Minnesota Children's Research Collections. Other materials (mostly illustrations, including Lawson's book mock-up for Ferdinand the Bull) are also housed in the Frederick R. Gardner Collection of Robert Lawson in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Among the latter materials are a sketchbook and several letters that date from 1917 to 1918, at which time Lawson was stationed in France, as a US Army sergeant, assigned to camouflage.

For a detailed account of the service of Lawson and others in the American Camouflage Corps, see Barry Faulkner's Sketches from an Artist's Life (Dublin, New Hampshire: William Bauhan, 1973). While in France, the American camoufleurs produced amusing theatrical shows for the French children whose mothers were aiding the war effort by constructing camouflage nets. According to Faulkner, "It was his [Robbie Lawson's] sense of fantasy and humor which made our musical shows successful."

A news article about Lawson (with excerpts from an interview) was published in the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston SC) on Sunday, November 30, 1930, on page 1 of the magazine section. Written by Rose Henderson and supplemented by Lawson's illustrations, the article was titled ROBERT LAWSON—MASTER OF FANTASY. The following are Lawson quotes, excerpted from the article—

In 1914 two great calamities occurred. The World War in Europe was one and my having to work and attempt to earn a living was the other. Europe's struggle is now more or less settled, but mine still continues.

From 1914 to 1917 I was a New Yorker and began to absorb things they hadn't taught in art school. My art activities were varied and pretty bad…

The French and English having by that time muddled the war all up, I joined the Camouflage Section of the Army which, as you are well aware, after a few years in France managed to get things straightened out. That being over, I really got to work, and have been doing illustrations and commercial drawings ever since, except for a period when my wife [née Marie Abrams] and I did nothing but Christmas cards.

Later in the article, the author (Rose Henderson) writes—

The Camouflage Section was composed of artists, architects, interior decorators, movie people, sailors, stage hands—loosely organized, quite comic and very efficient. He [Lawson] enjoyed long nights of talk with painters, sculptors, architects and musicians, in cafes, in dugouts, freight cars, tents or on the vine covered terraces of southern France. There were freedom and honesty in those conversations among artist soldiers far away from home and profession and conventional habits of thought and life.