During WWI, Germany implemented a policy of unrestricted U-boat (submarine) warfare that not only caused massive loss of life and equipment but also threatened the supply of food to England. When 55 British ships were sunk in one week during mid April 1917, the Admiralty became desperate for counteractive measures. Realising that making a ship disappear on the open ocean was a nigh-on impossible task, Lieutenant Commander Norman Wilkinson of the Royal Navy, formerly a marine artist, designer, and illustrator, promoted the ‘dazzle’ paint scheme as a remedy. This involved painting ships in disruptive patterns in order to confuse a German torpedo operator as to the direction that the ship was travelling, how far away it was, and how fast it was moving – essential information for a direct hit. Following completion of the first dazzle-painted vessel, the storeship HMS Industry, the Admiralty ordered all merchant ships to be painted in dazzle under the Defence of the Realm Act.

That June, Wilkinson, his assistant Cecil King, and a newly assembled team of 18 other artists were given four studios in Burlington House, part of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, to set up a ‘Dazzle Section’. Paint schemes were designed and applied to scale-sized ship models that were then assessed in the ‘viewing theatre’, set up from the point-of-view of the enemy torpedo operator. This involved placing the newly painted models on a rotating turntable and viewing them through a submarine periscope under various lighting conditions. Designs that were deemed satisfactory were drawn up on paper and sent for implementation to various ‘dazzle officers’ around England, one of which was the prominent Vorticist, Edward Alexander Wadsworth, who oversaw operations in Bristol and Liverpool. Up to 100 ships were painted in a single dry dock at any one time and by early 1918 more than 4,000 British merchant ships and around 400 Royal Navy vessels were painted in dazzle schemes. It is no wonder that Norman Wilkinson became a celebrated figure among British paint manufacturers!






Author: dpm

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