‘Razzle dazzle’ or ‘dazzle’ camouflage was pioneered during the First World War by the British marine painter Norman Wilkinson, who had pondered how it might be possible to hide a ship at sea.
‘I suddenly got the idea that since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer,’ Wilkinson said. His solution was to strive ‘not for low visibility, but to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as to the course on which she was heading’. To this end he employed graphically strong, angular patterns filled with bold shapes, uneasy juxtapositions and clashing colours.
During the First World War, more than 2,000 destroyers and battleships were camouflaged to conceal their real shapes, direction and speed, with Wilkinson and his team, which included the Vorticist Edward Wadsworth, supervising many different razzle dazzle schemes.
As Harry Pearson writes in an extensive article in the new edition of Christie’s Magazine, some of the world’s most innovative painters found themselves being commissioned not by collectors or galleries but by war departments in London, Paris, Washington and Berlin.
General Jospeh Joffre, Commander-in-Chief of the French forces, established the Section de Camouflage at Amiens in February 1915. Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola was its leader, and serving under him were Cubists such as Georges Braque, as well as Fauvist and Impressionist artists.
The US Navy opened a camouflage department in 1917. One of its most influential figures was the painter Abbott H. Thayer, whose best known work, The Sisters, hangs in the Brooklyn Museum. Other senior figures in the department included the impressionist painter Everett Warner and the muralist William Mackay. A young Grant Wood, meanwhile, found work painting camouflage patterns for the Corps of Engineers.
Offered at auction on 18 June, Eric Ravilious’s luminous 1941 pencil and watercolour of HMS Tetcott shows the destroyer painted in dazzle camouflage, and reminds us of the extraordinary use art was put to during both world wars.
Ravilious was appointed to the Admiralty as an official war artist and was invited by Lieutenant Richard Rycroft, whom he had met before the war, to travel aboard HMS Highlander in late May and early June of 1940. Attached as an escort to the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, Highlander left the shelter of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands and travelled with a formidable naval task force to seize the Norwegian port of Narvik. Ravilious said that the weeks he spent aboard the ship were among the happiest and most productive of his career.
Describing the chaos of naval war as ‘excitements above and below’, Ravilious focused on the light of the far north in midsummer, producing a dazzling series of watercolours that were warmly praised by Kenneth Clark, head of the War Artists Advisory Committee.
HMS Tetcott was painted as a wedding gift for Richard Rycroft and has remained in his family ever since. In August 1942, around 10 months after Rycroft’s wedding at Liverpool Cathedral, Ravilious flew to an RAF base near the town of Selfoss in Iceland. On the day he arrived, an aircraft had failed to return from a patrol. Ravilious joined the crew of one of the three planes sent to search for the missing aircraft. The plane he was on also failed to return and after an extensive search, the RAF declared Ravilious and the crew lost in action. His body has never been recovered.
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Dazzle camouflage became less useful in the Second World War thanks to the increasing sophistication of rangefinders, aircraft and radar, although dazzle paint schemes did reappear in the Royal Navy in January 1940. These schemes were unofficial though, with competitions often being held between ships for the best camouflage patterns.
More recently dazzle has featured in the works of Francisco Moreno, Charles Mary Kubricht and Patricia Van Lubeck. In 2014, to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, German artist Tobias Rehberger applied dazzle camouflage to HMS President, one of only three surviving warships built by the Royal Navy during the First World War.