Lavery received his commission as an Official War Artist attached to the Royal Navy in 1917. Although he was given a pass to work in dockyards and munition factories, this did not stop his arrest on one occasion as a German spy. It nevertheless gave him privileged access to strategic harbours and naval bases from Southampton to Scapa Flow. The scenes he depicted are rich and various, ranging from kit-balloons, fleet manouevres and troops embarking to, on one occasion, a coastal battery in action at Tynemouth. Lavery also, disguised as a naval commander, painted the surrender of the German Navy to Admiral Beatty in the forecabin of HMS Elizabeth.
However, one of the most extraordinary sights which met his eyes during his two years as a war artist was that of 'dazzle' ships. 'Dazzle', a form of camouflage, was invented by Lieutenant-Commander Norman Wilkinson, an academic marine painter. He described it as 'a method to produce an effect (by paint) in such a way that all accepted forms of a ship are broken up by masses of strongly contrasted colour' (quoted in R. Cork, A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War, 1994, p. 231). Dazzle painting thus aimed to confuse enemy gunners and submarine commanders as to the shape and direction of travel of allied ships, by the use of bold geometric shapes, zig-zags and, as in the present case, false perspectives. It was claimed that ships thus painted were sunk in fewer numbers than those painted in 'drab' or naval grey comouflage.
Richard Cork notes that it was also claimed that this form of disguise would not have evolved had it not been for the pre-war 'experiments in abstract design' conducted by the Vorticists, Futurists and Cubists, even though Wilkinson had no apparent interest in radical painting. It is nevertheless the case that the most extraordinary portrayals of 'dazzle' ships are those of younger, avant-garde painters like Edward Wadsworth and J.D. Fergusson, while the more conventional works of Charles Pears and Wilkinson himself are scarcely known. Lavery's encounters with 'dazzle' ships were few. One or two, such as The 'Appam' at London Docks, exist in the Imperial War Museum. The present example depicting a merchant 'mystery' ship, remains unidentified.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.