Thursday, May 2, 2019

Percyval Tudor-Hart | Canadian Camouflage Artist

Percyval Tudor-Hart (1934)
I first heard about the camouflage proposals of [Ernest] Percyval Tudor-Hart (1873-1954) years ago. Born and raised in Canada, he was a painter, teacher, and color theorist. Somewhat later, I saw photographs of a ship that he had camouflaged, a tank, and a pair of sniper’s gloves. In each, he had covered the surface with multi-colored, high-density zigzags. More recently, I saw the camouflaged gloves themselves in an exhibition sponsored by the Imperial War Museum (as shown below).

Tudor-Hart's camouflaged sniper's gloves

His proposal for WWI British ship camouflage (detail)
At one point, I ran across a reference to a Welsh medical doctor named Julian Tudor-Hart. The oddness of the family name prompted me to email him, asking if he were related to the Canadian camoufleur. As it turned out, it was his grandfather. I’ve since learned that Julian died only recently at age 91. I had intended to follow up with additional questions (he had offered to respond), but regrettably, I dropped the ball.

Cover of DVD package for Tracking Edith
Only a few weeks ago, I was fortunate to find a new documentary titled Tracking Edith. It is a film biography of Edith Tudor-Hart (1908-1973), an accomplished Modern-era photographer who studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau, worked as a Montessori kindergarten teacher, and recruited spies for the infamous Cambridge Marxist group that included Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and other intellectuals. Her story is at once fascinating and tragic, and the film is well worth watching (although I would not have included its unfortunate animations).

The father of medical doctor Julian Tudor-Hart was Alexander Tudor-Hart, who was the son of artist-camoufleur Percyval Tudor-Hart. Both of Julian’s parents were physicians, and after the couple’s marriage crashed, Julian’s father married Edith Tudor-Hart (née Suschitzky), who then became his stepmother. Julian, who seems to have been both kind and likable, is interviewed in the film.

I have since located what may be the only biography of Tudor-Hart the camoufleur. It’s a 250-page book by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor (who knew the artist), titled Percyval Tudor-Hart: Portrait of an Artist (London: MacMillan, 1961). Because I was searching primarily for information about his involvement in camouflage, the book was less than helpful. There is a short chapter on camouflage, describing the endless frustrations he faced when he submitted his proposals to the British government. “One department after another, having kept him on tenterhooks for varying periods, decided that his camouflage was impracticable and that further experiments were, therefore, inadvisable,” with the result, as MacGregory concludes, “one cannot but deplore that the time and energy he expended on all this had not gone into his painting.”

I think I first became aware of Tudor-Hart's connection with camouflage while reading Guy Hartcup's pivotal book, titled Camouflage: A History of Concealment and Deception in War  (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1980). Hartcup briefly mentions him in a section that reads in part as follows—

Another exponent of camouflage was P. Tudor-Hart, a painter who had made an intensive study of color values in Paris and had expounded his theories to a small coterie of artists in Hampstead before the war. Tudor-Hart was generally critical of current military camouflage and explained that when objects on land were concealed they tended to absorb rather than to reflect light. At sea, the opposite occurred. He proposed to paint a geometrical pattern of alternating stripes of warm and cold colors, graded according to the area they covered. At a distance these colors were supposed to mix optically, assuming a general gray tone. Tudor-Hart believed that because the colors were pure and arranged in a mathematical relationship they would "fluctuate with the increase or decrease in light."

Of related interest may be my recent essay on the camouflage proposals of American artist William Andrew Mackay, which also made use of the optical mixture of colors.

In the end, neither Tudor-Hart's paintings nor his camouflage proposals were likely his greatest achievements. He probably accomplished more as a mentor for younger artists (in Paris and London), a color theorist, and art restorer. His camouflage proposals came from his quasi-scientific view of color, and, more specifically, his beliefs about the ties between color and sound. In March 1918, at the apex of his interest in camouflage, some months before the war would end, he published a technical article in The Cambridge Magazine, titled “The Analogy of Sound and Color.” While obscure at the time (and even more so now) his theories influenced his students, one of whom, a decade earlier in Paris, was the American painter Stanton MacDonald-Wright. Together with Morgan Russell, MacDonald-Wright launched a style of painting based on color and abstraction called Synchromism.

Among Tudor-Hart’s other students were British artists Theodora Synge (cousin of Irish writer J.M. Synge), Donald Wood, W.T.H. Haughton, Margaret Beale, Richard and Sydney Carline, as well as their sister Hilda (who married Stanley Spencer). Among his American students were John Edward Thompson, George Carlock (Elbert Hubbard's nephew), and Richard H. Bassett. It was of particular interest to find that one of his favorite pupils was New Zealand-born painter Owen Merton, father of the admired American writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.

Front right: Lieutenant Wilford S. Conrow, WWI camoufleur

As for camouflage, I was also pleased to find that another of his students was Wilford S. Conrow, an American portrait painter who served during WWI as a commissioned officer in the American army’s first camouflage corps, officially established on September 6, 1917, at Camp American University, near Washington DC. Lieutenant Conrow, according to a news article at the time, “helped to organize the company” and “is in charge of all the paints and materials used at the camp.”

According to MacGregor (who claims incorrectly that Conrow was “director of American Camouflage during the Second World War”), when Conrow was asked by a fellow student who to recommend as an expert on color, he replied, “What a stupid thing to ask!… Why not consult our own teacher—the Darwin of Color?”

As for biological roots, it seems that Tudor-Hart came from the intermingling of two families, the Tudors of Boston and the Harts of Montreal. The Tudors were the wealthy half, thanks largely to the fortune of Percyval Tudor-Hart’s grandfather, entrepreneur Frederic Tudor, more commonly known as the Ice King. He amassed that fortune by harvesting ice from New England (including Walden Pond), then shipping it to the American South and the tropics. A key enabler in this ambitious enterprise was Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, who harnessed horses to a plow-adapted blade to more efficiently cut the ice. It was interesting to learn that this Wyeth was an ancestor of the artist Andrew Wyeth.

The father of the Ice King was a wealthy Boston lawyer named William Tudor. During the American Revolution, he was the legal advisor for George Washington, and, in 1775, was appointed Judge Advocate for the Continental Army. His son the Ice King was his third son, but his first son, also named William Tudor, was equally interesting and certainly just as successful, but not in business nor in law. After graduating from Harvard, he became a leading Boston citizen and a prominent literary figure. He was a co-founder and the first editor of The North American Review.

One of the pleasures of research is to unearth unexpected links—so-called degrees of connection. In this case, it was fun to dig up two. First, for almost two decades, I was the art director for The North American Review, which had awakened from its dormancy in 1969, when it was revived at the University of Northern Iowa. Through the efforts of its editor then, Robley Wilson, it soon gained recognition as one of the top literary newsstand periodicals, and a persistent competitor with The New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and other famous, well-staffed and amply-funded magazines. By the time Wilson retired in 2000, it had won the National Magazine Award for Fiction twice and was a finalist for that award five times; placed stories in the annual O. Henry anthologies four times, in the Pushcart Prize annuals nine times, in Best American Short Stories eight times, in Best American Sports Writing and Best American Travel Writing.

The second connection is that, when I was in graduate school in the early 1970s at the Rhode Island School of Design, my finest teacher at the time was a literary scholar named C[harles] Fenno Hoffman. He didn’t use his given name, and I believe we called him Fenno. It was he who introduced us to Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians. He died in 1996, but over the years I concluded that he was descended from (and named after) a famous ancestor, Charles Fenno Hoffman, a prominent American writer. The link to Percyval Tudor-Hart is that the wife of the elder William Tudor (Washington’s legal advisor) was Euphemia Fenno, and together they started a line that branched out from the Fenno (Hoffman) bloodline.


Postscript (added May 4, 2019): D. J. Enright, Interplay: A kind of Commonplace Book (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 6—

One good thing about not going to a public school was that you didn't get recruited to spy for the Soviet Union. I was at Cambridge, but nobody approached me. Scholarship boys didn't have a guilty conscience (or not the right sort).


New find: It would seem that we've located a photograph of Percyval Tudor-Hart (c1937) working in his studio. He is putting the finishing touches on a large-scale painted version of the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve. It was later translated into a magnificent tapestry. It includes a chimpanzee on the back of a zebra, a closer version of which is visible in the photograph of Tudor-Hart at the top of this blog post.


Postscript (added May 6, 2019): This gets a tad confusing, but it may be worth the effort. Among Percyval Tudor-Hart's uncles was Frederic Tudor (1845-1902), who had an artist-daughter named Rosamond Tudor (1878-1949). She was the granddaughter of the Ice King.  In 1904, she married an aviation pioneer and naval architect named William Starling Burgess (1878-1947). He later worked with Buckminster Fuller on the Dymaxion Car. One of their children, née Starling Burgess, changed her name to Tasha Tudor and became well-known as a children's book author and illustrator. There is a brief item in the November 1918 issue of Flying (p. 908), which reads as follows—

Mrs. W. Starling Burgess, the wife of Lieutenant Commander Burgess, the noted aeronautic engineer, and naval constructor, has joined the Navy, having been given a civilian appointment to the Camouflage Section of the Navy—the first of its kind.

Mrs. Burgess is well known as "Rosamond Tudor." Her paintings have been exhibited under that name. She has just completed a portrait of Father Zahm, the famous explorer who was with Colonel Roosevelt in the latter's exploration trip in the interior of Brazil.