Friday, September 27, 2019

Rockwell Kent | ship camouflage cover reconstructed

Rockwell Kent (1918), magazine cover (reconstructed)
In 2011, Joyce Shiller, who was then the Curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge MA, posted a brief online article about historic illustrations that portray “dazzle camouflaged” ships from World War I. She included reproductions of two magazine covers (Popular Science and Everybody’s Magazine, both 1918) and a Victory Liberty Loan poster (1919).

I had seen all three before, but the one of particular interest to me was the cover of the December 1918 issue of Everybody’s Magazine. Near the lower-right corner is the artist’s printed signature “Kent.” The cover artist was Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), the well-known American artist, illustrator, and author (see his edition of Melville’s Moby Dick, and his illustrated autobiography, It’s Me, O Lord). 

I first saw his camouflage-themed magazine cover (as I recall) in the late 1990s, when an art historian named Jake Wien (who has written about Kent and others) shared a small-size, low-resolution photograph of a copy he had found. It appeared to be in poor shape, with major surface damage and tattered edges. I later found that its color was substantially different from the one that Schiller reproduced. The color cast of Wien’s copy (as shown below, on left) is emphatically green, while the one in Schiller’s post (below, right) was blue. The other colors are consistent, which may suggest that the printing ink used for the background was fugitive and that one of the copies had been altered by years of exposure to light. If so, the question remains: Was the original background blue or green? Given the well-worn condition of the one that Jake Wien shared, I would guess the original color was blue.

Rockwell Kent magazine cover (two copies, same issue)

Whatever it must be a very rare item. It is possible that no other copies have survived. Over the years, I’ve looked for the issue repeatedly on online vintage magazine sites, in searchable archives, and in library holdings. Probably one of the reasons for its scarcity is that university libraries (maybe most of them) tended to discard the covers of magazine issues before they were bound as a volume. So, in the library that I mostly use, the inside pages of Everybody’s Magazine are intact, but the covers of all of the issues are gone. Fortunately, I recently found a black-and-white scan of the cover and was able to use that as a point of departure in an attempt to digitally reconstruct the full-color cover (as shown above). I chose to use blue as the background. Note that the title in the masthead is restored from the original, but the issue date and price (and Kent's signature) have been replaced with a new, if appropriate, typeface.

That Rockwell Kent would have created an illustration of ship camouflage is of particular interest because (as I’ve discussed in earlier posts), he had been a student of Abbott Handerson Thayer, and a close friend of Thayer’s son, artist and naturalist Gerald Handerson Thayer, both of whom are credited with important early findings about protective coloration in nature. In 1909, the Thayers co-produced (with Gerald as the author of record) a major book on the subject, titled Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom. It had an abundance of illustrations, including collaborative paintings by a handful of Thayers’ family members, students, and friends, one of whom was Rockwell Kent.