Saturday, February 10, 2018

Camouflage Artist | Cecil George Charles King

WWI camouflage ships (1918) Cecil George Charles King
Above Watercolor painting by Cecil George Charles King (1918), showing two dazzle-painted merchant ships (one in conspicuous zebra stripes) at dockside in Leith. Scotland. This and other images, with additional text and links, can be found on the 14-18-NOW WWI Centenary Art Commissions webpage. Starting this season (2018), in marking the final year of the centenary, that organization will be hosting dazzle-themed events in New York.


Cecil George Charles King (not to be confused with an Irish artist named Cecil King) was born in the London Borough of Hounslow on August 6, 1881. He initially studied engineering, but in a change of profession, he chose to study art instead in London at the  Westminster School of Art. He also studied in Paris, where he worked with Jean-Paul Laurens and Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen.

In 1917, when British painter Norman Wilkinson was sanctioned by the government to set up at Burlington House (Royal College of Art) a wartime “dazzle-painting” team for ship camouflage, King was “Wilkinson’s right-hand man.” This was in part, as James Taylor (2016) explains, because King “was a long-standing friend with shared interests in maritime subjects and poster designs which promoted travel by rail and ship.” He joined the camouflage section on August 18, 1917, and remained there for the rest of the war. 


King appears briefly in a news article by Mordaunt Hall (byline of British-born journalist Frederick Wentworth Mordaunt Hall, who had been an advance man for Buffalo Bill's Wild West, spied for England in World War I, and later became the first film critic for the New York Times), titled THE SILK HATTED MAN OF THE GEORGE WASHINGTON, in the New York Herald (March 2, 1919)—

Lieutenant Cecil King, RNVR, one of the men who have accomplished great things as a "dazzle painter" of ships, started the story ball rolling with:

"A young English cadet was ordered to come before an admiral who, as the youngsters put it in the royal navy, wanted to look into his eyeballs. 'Name three great English admirals,' said the examining admiral in loud tones. The cadet, sitting on the corner of a chair that might have held three his size, was perhaps not exactly at ease in such august presence.

'Drake, sir,' he began.

'Very good,' thundered the Admiral. 'Now another?'

'Nelson, sir.'

'Very good, and the third?'

The cadet moved forward on his chair and then piped:

'I didn't quite catch your name, sir.'"

We were all laughing when who should come through our compartment but [American] Admiral [William] Sims and one of his aids.


Of greater value and relevance is a news feature (a report on an article written by King) titled DAZZLE PAINTING that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald (New South Wales, Australia) on September 2, 1919 (p. 6). This is the full text—

During the war the secrets of camouflage and dazzle painting were jealously guarded, but since then the curtain has been lifted, and an article by Mr. Cecil King in the last issue of the journal of The Imperial Arts League throws still further light on the subject. Dazzle painting is technically not camouflage, but a specialized and comparatively recent development of it. It was introduced in 1917, when Mr. Norman Wilkinson, the well-known marine artist, was placed in charge of the new department, with Mr. King as his assistant. Its success was instantaneous; before long the personnel of the staff had been many times multiplied, depots established in every part of consequence, and the whole of the mercantile marine which plied in dangerous waters clothed in a Josephean coat of many colors. The object of dazzle painting was briefly to create illusion by applying certain principles of optics to the treatment of solid masses by painting out shadows, for instance, or by painting them in where they did not exist. The effect of a good design was to make it extremely difficult for an observer from the waterline to determine the character or size of a ship, or to judge the course she was steering. As the design depended on its efficiency on its conformity to the structure of the individual ship, no two designs could be precisely alike, but by degrees certain schemes of color and arrangement were found to answer best, and then a general plan was adopted, with modification to suit each particular case; finally the "zebra pattern" was evolved, of which we have seen so many examples in Sydney Harbor. The dazzle painter's art was a highly complex one; he had to take many perplexing factors into consideration: different conditions of light and atmosphere required different methods of treatment. A design that would protect a ship bound for the Archangel through the misty grayness of the North Sea and the Arctic would be totally unsuitable for a voyage through the hard, brilliant light of the Mediterranean. He could not afford to work by rule of thumb, and the success which attended his efforts is proved by the decline in the rate of sinkings. While everyone rejoices in the removal of the occasion for dazzle painting, there are some who regret the latter's disappearance. It produced an effect resembling a crazy dream from Alice in Wonderland, but it gave a touch of variety and picturesqueness now lacking in shipping. To see a great liner in her camouflage was to be reminded of a very dignified and imposing lady reluctantly masquerading at a fancy dress ball in a fantastic futurist costume.


Long after the war, King published an article titled MARINE CAMOUFLAGE (he was responding to an earlier article in the same magazine) in Ships and ship models: a magazine for all lovers of ships and the sea (November 1937, pp. 73-76). The article doesn't offer much that isn't already known (it does give credit to the work of Norman Wilkinson, Abbott H. Thayer, Professor Abel, W.L. Wylie, and an artist named Parkinson), as in the following excerpt (p. 74)—

Dazzle camouflage was based on a realization of the fact that it is impossible to conceal a merchant ship from the submarine, even if she be not emitting smoke, and that—if the presence of the ship were known—it was far better to confuse the submarine's estimates of her true course and other matters, by distorting her appearance, than to attempt any reduction of her visibility. This result had to be obtained by using violent contrasts of color, or rather of tone, many of the most efficient designs being of black and white only.

King's illustrations were often published in such prominent periodicals as The Sphere and Illustrated London News, and as travel posters. He was vice-president of the Society of Marine Artists, and, in 1932, became Marine Painter to the Royal Thames Yacht Club.

Cecil King died on December 9, 1942.


Behrens, Roy R. Camoupedia: a compendium of research on art, architecture and camouflage. Dysart IA: Bobolink Books, 2006.
Behrens, Roy R., ed. Ship shape: a dazzle camouflage sourcebook. Dysart IA: Bobolink Books, 2006.
Taylor, James. Dazzle: disguise and disruption in war and art. UK: Pool of London Press, 2016.
Williams, David. Liners in battledress. St. Catharines, Ontario: Vanwell Publishing Ltd, 1989.

NOTE A shorter, different version of this text has also been contributed to 

new signed copies still remain