Monday, July 13, 2020

Camoufleurs Maurice L. Freedman & Frank B. Masters

Launching of SS Everglades at Tampa FL, 1918 (AI digital color)
The United States entered World War I, on the side of the Allies, in 1917. The following year, American artist Maurice L. Freedman (1898-1983) served as a District Camoufleur for the United States Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation. He was assigned to Jacksonville FL, where it was his responsibility to oversee the application of camouflage to merchant ships. He was provided with colored lithographic plans of “dazzle camouflage” schemes that were designed by US Navy artists in Washington DC. When they did not exactly fit the ships, civilian artists at the docks (such as Freedman and his colleagues) made the required corrections.

Freedman was one of about two hundred civilian camouflage artists, who were assigned to seaside shipping ports on the east, south, and west coasts of the US. The extent of Freedman’s service was clarified about fifteen years ago, when Claudia Covert, a librarian and research scholar at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), realized the significance of a collection of 450 colored lithographic plans of ship camouflage that had been in the school’s possession since 1919. As Covert researched this material, it soon became apparent that Freedman, at the end of the war, had enrolled as a student at RISD, where he studied drawing, painting, and design. While there, he donated his collection of the plans (only two other sets, complete or nearly so, are known to have survived, although scattered, stray components can be found in public and private collections), along with vintage photographs of the dazzled-painted ships.

To support her research, Covert was awarded a grant from RISD, which enabled her to visit the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London, and the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Maryland, both of which have extensive holdings related to ship camouflage. As a result, she and others at RISD were able to embark on the arduous process of preserving the original lithographs, developing a lexicon of the different kinds of patterns, making archival digital scans, and arranging to share them publicly through publications, web-posting, exhibits, and symposia. As a way of supporting the project, some of the plans were reprinted at actual size, and sold online through RISD Works, the art school’s retail gift shop.

SS Everglades (1918), plan above, ship below

In 2008, Covert and librarian Ellen Petraits, working with other RISD staff and interns, documented their efforts in a presentation titled Dazzle Prints: Digitizing a Large Format Collection, which they then presented at a conference of The Art Libraries Association of North America (ARLIS/NA). Their report can be accessed online, as can other materials in the RISD Dazzle Print Collection.

Reproduced in that document are the plans for the camouflage pattern for an American merchant ship, named the SS Everglades, a 3,500-ton steel steamer. It had the distinction of being the first ship in which a camouflage pattern was applied while the ship was still being constructed, before the vessel had actually launched. As reported in several articles in the Tampa Tribune, the launching had originally been scheduled for July 4, 1918, but, because of complications, it was delayed until July 29. At 6:00 pm that day, it was officially launched at Oscar Daniels Shipyard in Tampa.

Maurice L. Freedman (who was headquartered in Jacksonville) may or may not have been present at the launching. His name does not appear in a lengthy news account as being among the attendees. But there is an explicit reference to the presence of one of his fellow artists, photographer and illustrator F(rank) B(ird) Masters, who is described in the article as having “completed his job Sunday.” The resulting “dazzle system” design, the article adds, is “one of the prettiest completed jobs imaginable.” It then speaks in some detail about the advantages of this approach to ship camouflage—

The “dazzle system” of camouflage, an adaptation from the latest English system, makes a much prettier looking boat. Instead of the hard straight lines with sharp angles that have characterized camouflage as used on vessels in the past, the new system comprises a series of graceful, curved lines and figures which deceive as to speed, size, and direction of progress, instead of attempting to hide the vessel. It Is said that as a cover or blending for the purpose of hiding the vessel, camouflage has been a failure but that it has proven its adaptability as a protective agency through deception. The new smooth and curving lines are said to be even more deceptive than the straight lines and hard angles. Certainly, on close-up observation the boat camouflaged under the new system is a much more pleasing sight to the eye, and as a success its value was apparent as one riding into town on Fifth Avenue looked down the estuary from near its head. Even at only this short distance away the vessel appeared considerably shorter as it was being towed to the river plant of the builders where a greater part of the machinery fitting and installation will be done.

Through the efforts of Covert at RISD, combined with other sources, there is additional information about Maurice L. Freedman. We know, for example, that, following his studies at RISD, he worked as an advertising artist in Providence RI, and, in the 1940s, designed Warfare: Naval Combat, an early iteration of a game since known as Battleship. In the 1950s, he was an assistant art director of Paramount Cards, the nation’s third-largest greeting card company, in Pawtucket RI. When he died at age 85, on December 4, 1983, he was living in Revere MA.

By comparison, there is considerably more information about Frank Bird Masters (1873-1955), who more often signed his work as F.B. Masters or Frank B. Masters. According to online postings, Masters was born in Watertown MA in 1873. He was initially drawn to science and engineering, with the result that he earned a BA degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1895. He worked briefly for the B.F. Sturtevant Company (the country’s oldest fan manufacturer), and then taught high school industrial arts for several years in Boston.

Illustration by Frank B. Masters (1907)

Around the turn of the century, his interests appear to have shifted from science and technology to art. In 1900, he rejoined the Sturtevant Company, but this time as an advertising artist. He also worked as an illustrator for the Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia. After his work was represented in several art exhibitions, he subsequently studied art with the prominent illustrator Howard Pyle in Wilmington DE. At the same time, he experimented with photography (specifically cyanotypes), by which he made candid images of workers, backstreets, locomotives, and industrial sites. He made these not as “photographic art,” but as image references for his illustrations for books, magazines, and advertising. From 1905-1918, he maintained a studio in New York at 23 West 24th Street, near Madison Square Park (in the Flatiron District).

Illustration by Frank B. Masters (1907)

In 1918, Masters accepted employment as a civilian ship camoufleur in New York with the US Shipping Board. He subsequently worked on projects in Jacksonville FL, Tampa FL, Washington DC, Charleston SC, and Savannah GA. The war effectively ended with the Armistice on November 1, 1918, and soon after Masters returned to New York, where he resumed his profession as an advertising illustrator.

Advertising poster for Century Magazine by Frank B. Masters (1903)


Above The two black-and-white illustrations by Frank B. Masters shown were originally published in the Washington Evening Star (Washington DC) on September 22, 1907.  

News articles about the launching of the SS Everglades were published in the Tampa Tribune on July 30, and August 4, 1918; and in the Tampa Bay Times on May 24, and August 1, 1918.