Thursday, July 21, 2016

Dazzle | Wilkinson, Kerr and Archibald Phillips

Above This is the wonderful cover of the 4th issue of a UK publication called Stages, an online journal produced in connection with the Liverpool Biennial 2016.

Go here to find the website, where the entire issue (except the introduction, which is only on the site) can be downloaded as a pdf. It offers seven articles, with full-color illustrations, on various aspects of historic British ship camouflage (which originated in World War I), beginning with the story of how vorticist painter Edward Wadsworth became one of the ten dock officers who supervised the painting of the actual ships. Following the war, Wadsworth created the well-known painting that is featured on the cover, in addition to a series of black and white woodcut prints.

There are also several accounts of UK-based commissions to apply dazzle-paint camouflage schemes to a small number of ships today, as one way of observing the centenary of the war. They've been good tourist attractions for sure, even if the new designs haven't much resemblance to genuine WWI dazzle-painting.

It is heartening to see the attention that this publication affords to two important contributions to the development of dazzle-painting (although they didn't call it that), both of whom came up with comparable methods two or more years in advance of its officially sanctioned proposal by Norman Wilkinson in 1917. They were Scottish zoologist John Graham Kerr and a Liverpool art dealer named Archibald E. Phillips. The latter, who submitted a number of ship camouflage proposals to the War Office in May 1915, actually described his designs as having a "dazzle effect" and "dazzling the eyes of the gunners of enemy submarines."

For a detailed and persuasive account of Kerr's dazzle-like proposals, see Hugh Murphy and Martin Bellamy's "The Dazzling Zoologist: John Graham Kerr and the Early Development of Ship Camouflage," which is available online here.

Of the many illustrations in the issue, among the most inviting is an oblique installation view of a camouflage exhibition at Riverside Museum, titled Nowhere to Hide: Camouflage at Sea (as shown below).


"Edward Wadsworth" in The Glasgow Herald (February 2, 1951)—

[Wadsworth's influences] can be traced, of course, here and there, Cubism and Vorticists, the portrait drawings of Wyndham Lewis, later on the flat, polished, cheerfully dreary patterns of Léger; much more important, probably, the engineer's training, the work on dazzle camouflage during the First World War, and everything else, from a first acquaintance with the high, cold light of the Aberdeen coast to the decorating of the Queen Mary, that had to do with ships and the sea.