Thursday, March 19, 2020

Oliver Percy Bernard | Camoufleur and Scenographer

Oliver Percy Bernard (c1915)
The RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. It sank in 18 minutes, eleven miles off the southern coast of Ireland. Among the fatalities were 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 American citizens. Among the survivors was a British architect and stage designer named Oliver Percy Bernard, who gained importance later as an Art Deco interior designer. But he also played a significant role in World War I British army camouflage. When the Lusitania sank, Bernard was moving back to London from Boston.

On May 8, there was an article in the Boston Post, with the headline ARTIST AMONG PASSENGERS: Oliver Bernard in Boston All Winter. It included a photograph of Bernard (above), accompanied by the following text—

Oliver Bernard, one of the passengers on the Lusitania, lived with Dr, and Mrs. Arial W. George of 38 Winchester Street, Brookline, from last October until he sailed for England.

Mr. Bernard was the director and resident artist of the Royal Opera House, London. He was also the business manager of the English Players, who were in Boston some weeks ago.


About twenty years later, Bernard (known to friends as “Bunny”) published an autobiography, titled Cock Sparrow: A True Chronicle [WorldCat lists it as fiction] (London: Jonathan Cape, 1936). Bernard was small and terribly hard of hearing, and the title refers to the slanderous name that he had been given by bullies. We have searched for a copy of his autobiography for years, either to buy or to borrow. Interlibrary loan requests have not been successful. When it first came out, there was the following brief review in the Sydney Morning Herald (July 25, 1936), p. 12—

Mr. Oliver Bernard is now a successful interior decorator in London, but his training for that position is by no means like most others of his colleagues. For that reason, his autobiography makes fascinating reading. We see the successful decorator as a small and unhappy boy, as an assistant in a scenery painting studio, as a deck-hand on a Norwegian windjammer, as an American stage designer, and, finally, as a camouflage expert during the war. In the interval of following these various activities, Mr. Bernard also went down with the Lusitania, about which experience he writes illuminatingly, and formulated his own design for living. In revealing the stages of this mental growth he is not so successful as when chronicling the highlights of his adventures. It is, perhaps, those very adventures and their variety which have left him a little muddled, and, consequently, his literary method tends toward diffuseness. But as a camouflage expert reconciling the arts of war and the arts of painting, he has such an unusual and interesting topic that the book becomes really worthwhile. Indeed, he feels so himself, for he devotes most of his chapters to the war years, and leaves the chronicle of his life at that point.


To date, the best, most detailed discussion of Bernard’s contributions as a British camoufleur (short of someday obtaining his memoir) is in Nicholas Rankin’s excellent book, A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars (UK: Oxford University Press, 2009).  See also War and Theatrical Innovation (2017).

To avoid confusion, it helps to know that Oliver Percy Bernard had a son who is also cited as Oliver Bernard, known for his translations of Arthur Rimbaud.