Saturday, March 31, 2018

How a Wild Ass Looks to a Color Blind Lion

Thayer photograph in Central Park
Above Photographic comparison of a stuffed zebra and a wild ass in Central Park in NYC, from Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom by Gerald Handerson Thayer. New York: Macmillan, 1909/18. The caption reads: Artificial ass and zebra, looked at from the low viewpoint of an ambushed lion, showing the effacing effect of the stripes in actual operation (facing p. 136). The entire book is available online.


Unsigned, HOW A WILD ASS LOOKS TO A COLOR BLIND LION. Artist Thayer Demonstrates His Theory of Concealing Coloration. IN CENTRAL PARK’S WILDS. Lay Crowd Sees Zoological Demonstration of Idea That Col. Roosevelt Attacked in The Sun (New York), March 12, 1912, p. 7—

If Col. [Theodore] Roosevelt finds time to take from his multifarious activities on the first cloudy day after today he can run up from the Outlook office to the 81st Street entrance to Central Park at 10 am and see how a wild ass looks from a lion’s viewpoint. If this please him he can also see how a zebra looks from a ditto viewpoint on a cloudy day in the Sotik [Kenya]. But better than all he can verify his expressed opinion of how Abbott H. Thayer, portrait painter and father of the Thayer theory of concealing coloration in the animal kingdom, looks from an African faunal naturalist’s viewpoint.

Mr. Thayer will necessarily be in proximity to the wild ass. The faunal naturalist has said of the artist amateur in the field of zoology and ornithology that he was “wild,” that being one of the minor characterizations indulged in by the faunal naturalist in his “Revealing and Concealing Coloration in Birds and Mammals,” by Theodore Roosevelt, author’s edition extracted from the bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History.

Just because Mr. Thayer did not trot out his wild ass and his zebra—both stuffed, but very lifelike—at the demonstrations he gave in the wildernesses of Central Park and the lot behind the Museum of Natural History yesterday morning Col. Roosevelt was not there. Nothing so picayune as stuffed hummingbirds perching on an azalea flower or a dummy filly loo bird nesting next to a neolithic brick in the back yard of the museum could lure a hunter of big game to forsake conferences and such, even though this was to be Mr. Thayer’s last word in a controversy upon which he entered unafraid with the premier stalker of the oryx. So Mr. Thayer had to be contented with an uninterrupted demonstration of the counteraction of rotundity and the immutable law of countershading as applied to the coloration of a bluejay, a canvas duck, twenty-nine hummingbirds and a chrome colored dog.

The dog, it may be stated parenthetically, was a volunteer subject, and by making itself perfectly visible in the operation of running away with one of the dummy birds thereby demonstrated that Mr. Thayer’s theory as applied to chrome dogs may be all right in the barren where such dogs come from, but not in the entirely artificial conditions in and about 81st Street and 8th Avenue.

The artist-naturalist opened his ocular refutation of Rooseveltian criticism by ranging on the ground back of the museum a dozen or more birds of dun colored canvas hue. Everybody who gathered to view the experiments agreed that the birds as they lay on the dead grass were really very visible. Then Mr. Thayer took an assortment of paintings and began to daub deceiving lines and splashes on the hurricane decks of three or more of the birds. Everybody agreed that when the countershaded the birds by painting—counter shade is the exact term—they became really very invisible.

There was just one thing which he couldn’t persuade Col. Roosevelt to accept, Mr. Thayer explained—the counter action of a rotundity and countershading. Wasn’t it plain enough that when a bird is round—and it may be said that most birds are more or less round—that he is lighter on the underneath side than he is on top the tricks of these shadows appear to counteract that bird’s natal gift of rotundity? Yet Col. Roosevelt had just a short while ago written Mr. Thayer from the Outlook office that “if a man wears a black frock coat and white duck trousers that man will not become by that fact invisible whether he is a rotund or a thin man.”

It began to filter in upon the consciousness of several in the crowd of spectators that Mr. Thayer did not agree with old Dr. Darwin and William Wallace [sic: should be Alfred Russel Wallace] and those other persons who worked it out that the stripes and dots and zigzags on all birds and mammals, with the exception of genus homo, were not designed necessarily for their protection. Mr. Thayer, who is an artist first and a naturalist only through his art, believes that the Almighty colored the flamingo as he did so that the stealthy crocodile would mistake the bird for a sunset on the Nile and not snap at it. Animal coloration is for protection, according to the theory which Mr. Thayer expounded yesterday to a policeman and about 150 people in plain clothes.

The spectators moved over to Central Park upon Mr. Thayer’s invitation and there they beheld the bluejay test. Mr. Thayer laid a sheet down where shadows would streak it; that represented snow in the winter home of the Canadian jay. Then he laid several stuffed jays on top of the sheet and defied anybody to distinguish the bluejays from the bluish shadows on the sheet. It is not the province of The Sun to decide any private bets, but one might say that if a person couldn’t—

After that came the hummingbirds perched amid the flowering glory of some specially imported azaleas and cinerarias. Because the birds were so particolored, Mr. Thayer explained, and not monochromatic, their outlines were blurred and they were rendered invisible even though they had ruby throats and emerald backs. Counteraction of rotundity again and there you were! A hummingbird from a hawk’s viewpoint—if hawks eat hummingbirds—would be—nothing.

Maybe it takes an artist like Mr. Thayer or Edmund Russell [Shakespearean actor?] to comprehend these fine points in optics and to get a wild ass from a lion’s viewpoint. But Col. Theodore Roosevelt, he says that no zebra ever deceived him by appearing like the evening sky against a foreground of reeds and he’d have a small opinion of a lion who would get only that impressionistic stuff when there was a meal behind it…


Mary Fuertes Boynton, "Abbott Thayer and Natural History," in Osiris Vol 10, 1952, pp. 542-555—

Mr. Thayer placed a model of a zebra not many feet back from the bridle path in Central Park, New York City, and the story goes that no one reported seeing it, not even the mighty hunter Theodore Roosevelt, who rode daily on that path and maintained in print that the zebra was the most conspicuous of animals [p. 546].

Friday, March 30, 2018

Why Not Try Women Camouflage Artists?

Artist unknown (1917), newspaper cartoon
Above The use of artists as camouflage designers in World War I coincided with the Women's Suffrage Movement. It led to sardonic comparisons of wartime camouflage with the historic use by women of cosmetics, dyes, clothing and fashion-based adjustments. Would it not make sense, this cartoon asks, to assign the task of camouflage to women?—After all, "they've been doing it all their lives." The social context of all this is discussed in an essay published recently, titled "Chicanery and Conspicuousness: Social Repercussions of World War I Ship Camouflage," which is available online. The cartoon above was widely published in American newspapers, such as in The Ogden Standard (Ogden UT), December 3, 1917, p. 11.


Arthur “Bugs” Baer, CAMOUFLAGE in The Daily Missoulian (Missoula MT), September 2, 1917. Special Features, p. 1. Even when the content is offensive, you have to admit that Bugs Baer had a way with words. He was a well-known American journalist and humorist, and indeed it was Bugs who came up with the nickname the "Sultan of Swat" for Babe Ruth

This war is being fought on words that ain’t in the dictionary. Old man Noah Webster knew a few spoonfuls, but he didn’t know any more about camouflage than a hog does about Sunday. You can lamp his dictionary until you sprain an eye, but you won’t apprehend anything about camouflage in his unabridged word garage. Camouflage is a bilking industry with the libretto and music written by the French. The theory is to swindle the Germans’ eyes. The Frenchmen cover themselves with lots of leaves. They got the theory from Adam and Eve, but ain’t paying royalties.


After he is camouflaged up in a set of form-fitting leaves, the Frenchman ankles off for a short vegetarian stroll toward the kaiser’s trenches. Some husky boche tosses his optic toward him, but figures him out for a dododendron bush goes democratic and poor old Haus is listed among the slightly killed, totally wounded or partially missing.


The idea of camouflage is to gyp the enemy. Give him one five for two tens. You heard about the cowboy who called on his best girl and found her bivouacking in another cowboy’s lap. He pulled out this 45-caliber revolver to shoot the beauty spot off her false, deceiving chin, when she looks at him like page 256 in any of Ouida’s novels.

“Do you believe your dearie, or do you believe your eyes?” she piped.

The poor fish believed his dearie, and they got married and lived snappily ever after. She had that fool cowboy all camouflaged up with her metropolitan tongue and city ways.


Still, camouflage is no novelty among the unfair sex. A flapper will high-heel along the macadamized turf, all ambushed up in a swarm of Djar Kiss. She will have a gang of summer furs lurking on her shoulders and a mob of paint, powder and other beauty utensils loitering on her face. She will have a complexion fairer than a supreme court decision. But when she gets home and starts to uncamouflage, she puts on ten years for everything she takes off. She has one of those removable complexions. By the time that she has moulted her blonde hair, shed her automatic teeth and discarded her mechanical eye, she is older than hieroglyphics, and gaining every lap.

She has one of these folding complexions that you can carry in your handbag. The French have no monopoly on that camouflage institution. Yea bo.


Under the modern regime of beauty camouflage, everything about a woman’s complexion is detachable except her ears.

There are different branches of study in the camouflage curriculum. In Washington the senators have oratorical camouflage down to a science. Their speciality is painting word pictures, using their chin as a brush. There isn’t a battle that the senate can’t win with a few maxillary calisthenics. Rhetorical camouflage is great stuff, but you can’t bridge the ocean with a pontoon of words. Any union senator with his vocal camouflagers on can guild a fleet in three paragraphs or raise an army with a few chin excursions. Aesop’s jackass had the camouflage idea when he attended the zoo bal masque wearing the lion’s coat and vest, but a few chirps of his fool mule tongue gummed his camouflage.


The gent who disguises himself behind a camouflage of women’s skirts in order to escape military service is smaller than the republican vote in Alabama. A guy that little can ambush himself behind a cancelled postage stamp. The slackers are utilizing a camouflage of women’s skirts, dependent relatives, conscientious objections, flat feet, weak heart and weaker knees. Which is a camouflage that fails to camouflage by quite a few flages. And a culprit who tries to hide behind a woman’s petticoats would have to pass his career in a bureau drawer. That’s where the ladies are wearing their pettiskirts. Nope, we ain’t married, but we read the Delineator.


By camouflaging yourself as a porcupine with a flat wheel, you can secure enough elbow space in the subway to draw in a breath edgeways once in a while. But as drawing in a subway breath is suicide at a nickel a ticket, this camouflage is rather intricate.

Peace hath her camouflages as well as war. With a little cranial dexterity and a few cerebral gymnastics, camouflaging can be utilized to alleviate the inconveniences of civilization.

There will be a camouflage for every ill.

Of course, in the case of a poor henpecked husband we can paint no disguise with a brush.

The only camouflage will be distance. And you will have to point that with your heels.


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Gladys Thayer | Daughter of Abbott Handerson Thayer

Abbott H. Thayer, Gladys (c1915).
Above Abbott Handerson Thayer, Gladys (c1915). Oil on canvas. Original is in the collection of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.


Gladys Thayer (also known as Gladys Thayer Reasoner) was born in Woodstock CT on July 17, 1886. Her parents were Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) a well-known American painter and naturalist, and Catherine (Kate) Bloede Thayer (1846-1891), who was descended from a family of accomplished German writers, scientists and political reformers. There were five children in the Thayer family, two of whom, the second and third, died while still in infancy. Those who lived to be adults were Mary (1876-?), Gerald (1883-1935) and Gladys.

Shortly after Gladys’ birth, a friend of the family reported that “[Abbott] Thayer is boiling over with happiness of a healthy girl baby and all goes well in the Thayer household.” At the same time, Kate’s father’s health began to fail and he died in May 1888. Kate Thayer lapsed into a severe depression (referred to then as melancholia), and was hospitalized for extended treatment. Over time, her condition worsened and she died in 1891. A few months later, Thayer married a family friend, Emmeline Buckingham Beach, who had assisted the family for years, and whom the children called “Aunt Addie.”

Gladys Thayer grew up in what has been described as an “eccentric” or unconventional household. She and her siblings were kept out of school, for fear of being exposed to contagious illnesses (not unreasonable at the time). Their “home-schooled” education was a rich combination of daily activities, centered on classical reading, writing, art, music, overseas travel, nature studies and enlivened dinner discussions. It was supplemented by modeling for their father, and in other ways assisting him as he took on commissions from wealthy art patrons.

A central component, shared by everyone in the family, was an insatiable interest in animals (some of which were taken in as exotic house pets). Abbott Thayer “loved animals and each family dog seemed to take a scarcely less important place than the humans,” Gladys recalled of her father. “We had countless happy times with him, and wood walks and twilight fires stand out among the happiest.”

In his autobiography, book publisher George Palmer Putnam II describes his youthful friendships with Gerald Handerson Thayer (an artist and naturalist) and Rockwell Kent (a Thayer student). He visited Dublin briefly in his late teens, and he recalls that Gladys (known as Galla) was “a fragrant girl with a special beauty all her own.” He fell in love with her and they briefly dreamed of marriage. But “the idyll did not materialize,” because his parents sent him overseas, “and by the time I returned, Galla sensibly thought better of it.” He later married the aviator Amelia Earhart, who was also on occasion a visitor to Dublin.

As did all the Thayer children, Gladys studied drawing and painting with her father, and also no doubt profited from the presence of students and apprentices, among them Kent, Richard Merryman, Barry Faulkner, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and the sons of William James, named William Jr. (Billy) and Alexander (Alec). Gladys contributed to the illustrations that were published in Abbott and Gerald’s early, influential book on animal camouflage, as did Kent, Merryman and Aunt Addie. It was titled Concealing coloration in the animal kingdom: an exposition of the laws of disguise through color and pattern (1909). Gerald is deservingly listed as the book’s author, but in truth his father was in charge, with assistance from others as needed.

As Gladys reached adulthood, her father encouraged her to exhibit her drawings, pastels and paintings. In February 1906, her work was featured with that of her father at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. Her most accomplished single work may be a portrait of her father that dates from 1907 or shortly thereafter. He wrote notes to the gallery owner and art dealers, encouraging them to show her work, which typically consisted of still-lifes and landscapes. Occasionally her work was shown at Knoedler Gallery, Vose Galleries of Boston, and Grand Central Galleries. The reviews were politely supportive.

As Abbott Thayer aged, his mental and physical health declined. He admitted to being susceptible to what today is known as bipolar disorder or manic-depressive episodes. He described this as the “the Abbott pendulum,” in which his moods would fluctuate between “all-wellity” at one extreme and “sick disgust” at the other. Near the end of his life, he was assisted in his studio by three apprentices, Henry O’Connor (1891-1975) and Frederick Rhodes Sisson (1893-1962) from Boston, and David O. Reasoner, an Indiana-born artist who had worked for the US Shipping Board as a civilian camouflage artist during WWI.

In his final months, Abbott Thayer was progressively disabled by strokes. According to Gladys, it was primarily Reasoner who attended to Thayer’s needs and “toward the end did little besides take care of him.” The frequency of the strokes increased and he died on May 29, 1921.

Throughout the span of this ordeal, Gladys Thayer and David Reasoner had become a couple, and, about ten days after Abbott’s death, they were married on June 6, 1921. In subsequent years, they became the parents of four children, Allen (who would die at age twenty in a wartime training accident), Jean (portrait painter Jean Reasoner Plunket), Peggy and Richard. In 1924, the family moved to Woodstock, New York, an artists’ colony in the Catskill Mountains. For the next decade, David Reasoner was associated with the Woodstock Country Club, while he also worked as manager of the Woodstock Playhouse.

Throughout these years, Gladys continued to paint and to exhibit her work on occasion, but rarely at prominent galleries. In the fall of 1932, thirty-one of her artworks were exhibited for two weeks at the Woodstock Country Club Tavern, and a selection of her flower paintings were shown at the Grand Central Art Gallery in New York in January 1935.

Beginning in the spring of 1937, for about three years, the Reasoner family was almost nomadic. They traveled across the country by station wagon, often camping out, and living intermittently at various locations in California (San Diego, Point Loma, Santa Barbara, Montecito, and Santa Monica). In 1940, after David Reasoner’s father died, the family moved back to his hometown, Upland, Indiana, to care for his ailing mother.

The U.S. entered WWII at the end of 1941. U.S. ship camouflage experts knew that Gladys’ father and her brother Gerald had informally advised the Allies on camouflage during WW I. Since David Reasoner had also been a ship camoufleur during that war, he thought he might again find work in the same capacity. In January 1942, he moved to Washington DC, accompanied by his daughter Jean, while his wife remained with her mother-in-law in Indiana. Unfortunately, as Jean recalls, “technology had made most of his camouflage skills obsolete,” and he never secured that position.

The time frame is unclear, but at some point during WWII, Gladys Thayer Reasoner joined her husband in Washington, DC, where she died of cancer on August 25,1945.


Abbott Handerson Thayer and Thayer family papers, 1851-1999, bulk 1881-1950. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

“Artist discovers rare self-portrait by Thayer” (1948) in The Kingston Daily Freeman (Kingston NY). December 14, pp. 1 and 17.
Behrens, Roy R. (1988) “The theories of Abbott H. Thayer: father of camouflage” Leonardo (MIT Press). Vol 21 No 3, pp. 291-296.
Behrens, Roy R. (2002) False colors: Art, design and modern camouflage. Dysart IA: Bobolink Books.
Bowdoin, W.G. (1921) “Oil Paintings by Gladys Thayer at Macbeth Gallery” in The (NY) Evening World, April 11, p. 10.
Cortissoz, Royal (1919) “Originality in art, natural and artificial: Painting by Twachtman; Miss Thayer’s portraits” in New York Tribune, January 12, p. 7.

“Gladys Reasoner to hold exhibition” (1932) in The Kingston Daily Freeman, July 25, p. 6.
Plunket, Jean Reasoner (1998) Faces that won’t sit still: An update. Washington DC: Self-published.
Putnam, G.P. (1942) Wide margins: A publisher’s autobiography. NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Thayer, Gerald H. (1909) Concealing coloration in the animal kingdom: An exposition of the laws of disguise through color and pattern. NY: Macmillan.
White, Nelson C. (1951) Abbott H. Thayer: Painter and naturalist. Hartford CT: Connecticut Printers.

Note A slightly different version of this text has also been provided to

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Sims' Circus | Checkerboards Meet Harlequins

Cover illustration by Gayle Porter Hoskins (1919)
Above Cover, The Ladies Home Journal (March 1919), with a stunning illustration by American artist Gayle Porter Hoskins (1887-1962). It depicts the dazzle-painted RMS Mauretania arriving in New York with the first returning American troops on December 1, 1918. It is evident why this checkerboard style of camouflage (mostly employed by the British) was compared to a harlequin's outfit. Public domain image.


Herman Whitaker, SIMS' CIRCUS: A Cruise with Our Destroyers Over There in The Independent (June 1, 1918), pp. 358-359—

From the train window approaching the base I obtained my first view of "Sims' circus" [in reference to its commander, US Admiral William Sims], as the flotilla had been named by the irreverent ensign…

…A convoy was ready to sail, a dozen or so of our destroyers were to be seen nestling like speckled chickens under the wings of the mother repair ships.

I said "speckled." It is, however, too weak a term for the "dazzle" paint with which they were bedaubed. No wonder the irreverent ensign dubbed them "brick-yards."

Barred, striped, blotched, smudged, ring straked with vivid pinks, arsenic greens, blowsy reds, violent blues, they looked like—like nothing in the world unless it be that most poisonous of drinks, a 'Frisco pousse cafe. All of the giraffes, zebras, leopards and tigers ever assembled in the "World's Greatest Aggregation" exhibit conventional patterns in comparison with this destroyer camouflage. The exception to this blazing color scheme, a recent arrival from home, looked in her dull lead paint like a Puritan maiden that had fallen by accident into a blowsy company of painted Jezebels.

The object of this wanton display is, of course, to fool Fritz of the submarines. That is might do so by hurting his eyes or the shock of his artistic sensibilities none would deny; but I found it hard to believe that these rainbow colors make a difference in visibility. Yet they do. Whereas, at sea the following day, the "Puritan maiden" showed a clear black outline at four miles with every spar clearly defined, the "Jezebels" presented at the same distance a blurred, wavering mass of color. It was difficult to tell bow from stern or judge their direction. They presented about as fair a target as a darting hummingbird.

Hypothetical dazzle schemes © Roy R. Behrens 2018

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Perils of Painting a Camouflaged Ship

Hypothetical dazzle schemes (2018)
Above and below. These are not historic ship camouflage schemes. They are hypothetical dazzle designs, produced by simply "looking through" cut-out silhouettes of ships, with various public domain photographs behind them. Produced by Roy R. Behrens (2018).


Unsigned, THE WHY AND HOW OF DAZZLE. Daily News (Perth, Western Australia). May 19, 1919, p. 4. Reprinted from the Christian Science Monitor

They certainly did look strange, those ships; patched and lined, like grandmother’s crazy quilt with broad black, white and blue bands and stripes, gray, green, and almost every color save the mythical sky-blue-pink.

Passengers on the ferries lined the rails and made many and varied comments on their strange appearance.

“You see,” said one Solomon to his unwise friend, “that camouflage’ is a great thing all right! Yes, sir, that ship there when she gits to sea will just go plumb out of sight, Pop! You don’t see her at all when she gets to sea, so the Dutchmen can’t shoot her with their periscopes.”

“Seems to me,” said his friend rather doubtfully, “that I can see her better than that gray one over there.”

“Pshaw! That’s because you aren’t in a submarine. When she gets to sea, she blends right in with the waves and matches right-on to ‘em.”

The two in conversation did not know that the dirty overalled man with jointed fishing pole and roll of plans standing near by, an amused listener to the conversation, had just finishing applying a crazy quite design to the steamer in question, and knew that the reason for the lines and patterns was not by any means to hide the ship from the submarine observer.

Early in the war, when the German were sinking everything in sight, stern necessity, ever the mother of invention, evolved many systems of marine camouflage. Several Americans—Mackay, Brush, Herzog and Toch—had systems which were called by naval men “low visibility,” the object imitating the water and sky. This was in some degree successful under certain conditions; indeed in some weathers the ship so painted would disappear at a distance of a mile. But for one thing, this low visibility would have been a great success.

This thing was the same machine set in a shell of a submarine called the “skin hydrophone,” a very delicate and accurate device for detecting the sounds of a ship’s propeller. A ship could be discovered long before she could be seen from the low elevation of a periscope, and her course fairly accurately determined. That is, accurately enough to tell if she were coming toward or going away from the listener. Also, under certain conditions, it could be told if she were going to the right or left.

Such an instrument disposed once and for all of low visibility as an absolute protection, and it remained for an English artist, Norman Wilkinson, Command, Royal Navy, to invent a new and effective way of combating the submarine peril.

Broadly stated, his method of camouflage was a distortion, an optical illusion based on varied elements of perspective and drawing. Ships painted in this manner seemed to be sailing an entirely different course from the one they really followed, much to the confusion of the submarine observer.

Some people seem to think that to sink a ship a submarine has only to sight it. This is hardly the case. Quite complicated computation of the vessel’s distance, speed, and course are necessary together with wind, current, and temperature of the water; and a good many ships were missed only by a few feet, but still missed, and a miss was as good as a thousand miles.

That was the problem for the camoufleurs, when the United States entered the war [in 1917]. The Royal Navy sent Wilkinson across the Atlantic to impart his method. Early last year a Boston advertising man, Henry C. Grover, was engaged by the [Emergency Fleet Corporation] Shipping Board to organize a department of camouflage for all our immense merchant marine which was to be built. The thing was absolutely new and untried, but he got a group of artists and draftsmen together, and with his usual genius for getting results, the thing was humming in a month.

Painting a ship is very simple—theoretically—just take a brush and painting and “go to it”—just like that. Of course we had a plan, a design furnished by the Navy Department, which showed a view of the two sides of the ship (the sides were different, by the way), and a husky gang of painters, but ship painting is different from painting a house; much larger, oh vastly.

Hypothetical dazzle schemes (2018)

When we first stood under the bows of a newly launched tank steamer and looked up at her, she was an appalling thing to a novice. Thirty-five feet out of water the bow towered, a sheer wall of steel, flaring outward at the top to make it doubly difficult. On that curving rampart we had to make accurate lines in curves, and beautiful parabolas (I think that is the word). At any rate, I would have given the old family clock and all my loose change just that minute for a pair of foot warmers.

It wasn’t so bad after we started, though the first ship was far from a model. Slinging stages over the bow, we put two painters on them with poles and chalk, and by gestures and megaphoned instructions from the wharf had them spot in points on the curves and connect them.

It is quite impossible, unless one is highly experienced, to draw these curves and lines when standing close to the ship. One needs to be 100 feet away properly to judge the proportion; and the effectiveness of the design depends largely on its accuracy. Later we learned to use a mirror, flashing the spots on the side one after the other along the course of a curve, and stretching a long chalk line from the straights snapped by a man in the center. Sometimes we used long “battens,” strips of thin board, bending them to the proper curves, and a 20-foot fish pole with a brush on the tip helped to strike in the more complicated forms. Strange as it may seem, the hardest forms to apply to a ship are long parallel straight lines which converge to points near bow or stern. For some reason we never could seem to get the angles just right.

It was no place for a dainty man, when worked on the floats alongside, for a rain of things descended on us. Bolts, hot rivets, scraps of iron, and heavier things like lumps of wood and heavy pieces of rope, when working in the shipyards, come down at unexpected intervals. No use yelling up at the man on the deck to be careful—with 500 men hammering and drilling and reaming, conversation is at a discount. You can only dodge and grin cheerfully at the painters.

Then again tugs and steamers have a way of pulling a heavy wash into the slips when one is on a high staging 12 feet or so above the water. The float rocks violently without the slightest warning, and if you have fallen overboard at the first roll you drop on hands and knees and grip until the float is fairly still again. When this is past, and you are congratulating yourself, some enthusiastic painter tips over his pail of dark blue, or whatever colors he happens to be using, directly above you, perhaps, or the cook happens to think of some refuse that needs disposing of, and then there are holes in the side of the ship where water—hot or cold—pops out without warning. A camoufleur is not a camoufleur unless he falls overboard regularly once a week.

Still, it was a great game while it lasted, taken with the interesting experimental work on little models in a mechanical theatre with a sea foreground and a painted strip to imitate sky—this in the intervals of ship-painting. The dazzle painted ships are now fast disappearing under their peace coasts of gray. May they never again need the services of American camoufleurs.

detailed information sources

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Camoufleur F.M. Watson Has Now Been Identified

US Ship Camoufleur Frank M. Watson (1928)
As explained in a couple of earlier posts, for years we have been trying to find the full name and identity of a World War I ship camouflage designer, nearly always cited as F.M. Watson, Chief Painter at the Norfolk Navy Yard.

At last, through the research efforts of Cathy Hyman of South Carolina, we have finally found our man. He was Frank Morris Watson, Sr. (1879-1966), from Portsmouth VA. Here is more about his life—

Frank Morris Watson, Sr. was born in Philadelphia PA on October 21, 1879 [in an earlier version of this posting, we listed his birth year as 1880, but it now appears to have been a year earlier). In the census for 1910, he listed his occupation as "house painter," but during World War I (possibly earlier), he was employed as Master Painter at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth VA. He listed the same occupation in 1941 or 1942, when he was 61 years old.

In the March 22, 1928, issue of The Times Herald (Port Huron MI), he was featured in a photograph (as shown above), holding an artist’s palette and mahlstick, standing beside a life-sized, full-figure painting of Christ. The caption below the photograph reads—

Thirteen weeks of painting in his spare time resulted in this nine-foot painting of Jesus Christ by Frank M. Watson, of Portsmouth, Va. Watson is shown with the painting which he presented to a Portsmouth church. He is not a professional painter (p. 11).

A decade earlier, while employed at the Norfolk Navy Yard, he designed a number of posters, fourteen of which have survived (although badly faded) and are posted on the website of the North Carolina Digital Collections. It appears they were used for the purpose of raising funds for the war through Liberty Loan subscriptions from Navy Yard employees. They are signed F.M.W. Navy Yard Norfolk VA.

In US Navy history, Frank M. Watson (who, until recently, had not been clearly identified and was cited in government records as “Watson”) was known only as the designer of what was commonly called the Watson-Norfolk System for ship camouflage (c1917). It consisted of two distinctly different patterns, one for each side of the ship. For a trial period, these were applied to two American ships, the USS Anniston (formerly the USS Montgomery), and the USS Nebraska.

Watson-Norfolk System (two sides of same ship)

There are no full-color photographs of these ships (color photography, as we know it, had not yet been perfected), but there are detailed black and white photographs that show why Watson’s camouflage plans were among the most unusual. They are made of boldly-colored zigzag shapes (on the port side) and abstract rainbow patterns (on the starboard), both of which make use of perspective illusions. Watson’s scheme plan was approved for use on merchant ships (along with five other proposals) but was soon replaced by another approach.

Additional photographs of ships that have been painted with the Watson-Norfolk camouflage plan are reproduced below, as is the gravestone of Frank M. and Gertrude A. Watson, at Greenlawn Memorial Gardens, Chesapeake City, VA.

He died in Portsmouth VA on April 28, 1966.

Note A slightly different version of this text has been provided to

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Inept Portrayals of Camouflage from World War I

Charles de Lacy (1919)
We ran across these recently. They are two illustrations from John S. Margerison, Our Wonderful Navy: The Story of the Sure Shield in Peace and War. London: Cassell and Co, Ltd (1919). The illustrations are the work of a British marine painter, probably not a camoufleur, named Charles John de Lacy (1856-1929). The one above is dramatically cropped, since the original image was twice as wide, spanning a two-page spread, with some of it lost in the binding. This is by far the better half. It shows a dazzle-painted American troopship being escorted by a convoy, but the dazzle pattern on the troop ship is absurdly simple-minded. Even more symmetrical,  redundant and predictable are the dazzle designs on what are said to be minesweepers in the illustration shown below. In both, the dazzle pattern is hardly confusing. Instead of obscuring the vessels' shapes, it articulates their physical form, making them even more readable. Interesting images, nevertheless.

Charles de Lacy (1919)

detailed information

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Camouflage Artists | The Kearton Brothers

The Keartons' stuffed cow decoy
One of our favorite websites, hands down, is that of The Public Domain Review. Once there, perhaps our favorite essay (and one that's especially pertinent to our camouflage blog) is John Bevis' account of two turn-of-the-century wildlife photographers, the Kearton brothers. Titled Stuffed Ox, Dummy Tree, Artificial Rock: Deception the Work of Richard and Cherry Kearton, the essay describes and illustrates the ingenious attempts of these British pranksters to cleverly conceal themselves, in order to take candid photographs of animals in their natural habitat. They then published the results in several books (all of which are in public domain and available online). Bevis (author of the essay) has himself published a book about these phenomenal, pioneering naturalists, titled The Keartons: Inventing Nature Photography (Uniformbooks, 2016).

Above are two of their photographs, showing two views of one of their inventions, a stuffed ox, (in Bevis' words)—

a hide realistically shaped over a padded frame, whose interior was just sufficiently capacious for both camera, mounted in the brisket and focusing through a hole in the hide, and photographer, bent into an excruciatingly uncomfortable posture…The stuffed ox enjoyed a brilliant but brief working life, being retired damaged at the end of the 1900 season after being blown over with Cherry [Kearton] inside.

But there's more—much more—such as a stuffed sheep, a large artificial rock, a spurious hollow tree trunk, a mask that shields the photographer's face, and a phony rubbish heap. Anyone familiar with various wartime camouflage tricks (see for example the decoy papier maché cow below, held aloft by World War I French camoufleurs), said to have originated with artists, will recognize that the Keartons' inventions anticipate those by at least a decade.

French camoufleurs with cow decoy