Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Watson-Norfolk Camouflage Scheme | F.M. Watson

One of the earliest, most informative publications about modern American ship camouflage was a two-part magazine article in the US Naval Institute Proceedings, in July 1971 and February 1972. Both articles were titled "Ship Camouflage: Deceptive Art," the first one dealing with World War I, the second with World War II. The texts were written by Robert F. Sumrall (the curator then of ship models at the US Naval Academy Museum), and were greatly enriched by photographs, charts and drawings from his collection. more>>>

Surely, anyone who saw Sumrall's initial article was especially taken aback by photographs of two ships, USS Anniston (formerly the USS Montgomery) and the USS Nebraska. Both ships had been painted with a strange experimental design called the Watson-Norfolk scheme. It was called that because it had been proposed by F.M. Watson, who was the chief ship painter at the Norfolk Navy Yard. We blogged about this once before, when we featured a replica of one of the ships, by model-builder Wolfgang Kring.

Shown above are photographs not of the USS Nebraska but of the USS Anniston. Apparently they were the only two ships to which this pattern was applied (c1917). In both cases, as these photographs show, the left or port side of the ship was painted in a geometric zigzag plan, while the right or starboard side had a strikingly different pattern of multi-colored target forms.

There remains the mystery of just who F.M. Watson was. He may have had connections with North Carolina, since the only online works we've found are on the website of the North Carolina Digital Collections, which has 14 wartime posters signed by Watson. If so, it may be relevant that there is a grave for F.M. Watson (no name, only initials again) in the Elmwood Cemetery in Fremont NC. His dates are listed on the tombstone as 1877-1938, a typical time span for a WWI veteran. [We have since determined that the camoufleur and poster designer who was the chief ship painter at the Norfolk Navy Yard was Frank M[orris] Watson, Sr. (1880-1966) from Portsmouth VA, not F.M. Watson from Fremont NC.] more>>>

The Watson posters in the NC collection are in dreadful shape, for the simple reason that they were (apparently) published not on a printing press, but through a blueprint process, which is notoriously impermanent. I have cleaned up one of those (in brown coloration, not blue), in an attempt to strengthen its contrast. The result is below.

Poster by F.M. Watson (c1918)

By artistic standards, Watson's Over the Top: Third Liberty Loan poster is the best of his posters. The others are blueprints and somewhat clearer to read, but the drawn images, hand lettering and page layouts are amateur. Whatever the circumstances that enabled him to design the camouflage for a ship, the naiveté of his posters suggests that he was either untrained or not very capable as a professional designer. This is also reinforced by his amateur method of signing his name (shown below).