PATTERNS IN PRACTICE | THE ART OF CONFLICT
Image courtesy of Transport for London
The artist Norman Wilkinson’s striking geometric Dazzle designs transformed Britain’s merchant ships in 1917, not only serving a practical defensive purpose, but also introducing a startlingly modern way of thinking about pattern, and influencing the work of artists and designers for decades to follow.
PATTERNITY spoke to IWM’s Head of Research and Information, James Taylor, to discover the origin, purpose and implications of Dazzle in the worlds of warfare and art…
What was the thinking behind Dazzle?
Dazzle represented the recognition that you couldn’t hide a ship. The Dazzle artists created very bold geometric colour patterns, often contrasting and clashing, so that they would confuse an enemy submarine commander as to the course a ship was taking, and even what its actual form was. One side of the ship would be given one design, the other would have a completely different one, so that if the German U-boat happened to go across the front, and the commander were to turn around, he would see a completely ‘different’ ship to the one he thought he was looking at. Dazzle was a form of deception, essentially.
How did Dazzle come about?
In early 1917, Germany adopted a policy of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’, which meant that German submarines were sinking any ships bringing supplies to Britain. At one point, in mid-April, there were 55 ships lost to German U-boats in a week – it looked like they might knock Britain out of the war. The marine artist Norman Wilkinson, an officer in the Royal Navy, was on the train one morning and suddenly came up with what we now know as Dazzle. He approached the Admiralty, who were grasping at anything that they could to stop the haemorrhaging of supplies. They were a fairly traditional bunch of men, but even they were prepared to adopt a scheme as apparently radical as Dazzle – though I think they had trouble accepting their warships being painted in what were essentially avant-garde designs.
DAZZLE IN THE DRY DOCKS Image courtesy of Imperial War Museums
How were the patterns developed?
In June 1917 at the Royal Academy in Burlington House, Wilkinson set up a team of five artists, three model makers and 11 students who came up with the Dazzle plans. They would take a small wooden model of a given vessel, put it in what they called a ‘theatre’ – essentially a lightbox where they would change the lighting to reflect conditions at sea – and then someone would look through a periscope and determine how effective each design was. Once the plans had been created, they were hand-coloured and sent out to the docks. Outport officers would supervise the transfer of the designs onto the ships (several of them were artists themselves, including the Vorticist Edward Wadsworth) By the end of the war there were 2,300 ships painted in Dazzle designs, turning Britain’s ports into floating art galleries.
How successful was Dazzle in protecting our ships?
At the same time Dazzle was introduced, a new convoy tactic was implemented so ships weren’t sailing alone, they were in groups of 20–50, with Royal Navy protection, so it’s difficult to judge how effective Dazzle was. One thing we do know is that the morale of the crews on the merchant ships was greatly improved by its introduction – I think they felt that something was finally being done for them. And, it has to be said, Dazzle certainly brightened up British ports.
Tell us about the Imperial War Museums archives – what materials do they hold relating to Dazzle?
Our art department has nearly 2,000 of the Royal Academy’s original Dazzle plans and we have around 200 of the small wooden ships that the schemes were originally tested on. We also have a marvelous collection of photographs and films of ships in Dazzle camouflages. It’s a very wide representation of one of the most fascinating artistic concepts of the First World War.
MAKING DAZZLE PLANS Image courtesy of Imperial War Museums
How do Dazzle and its legacy tie in with the mission of IWM?
The Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917 – the same year that Dazzle was introduced – in order that we never forget what it is to live in a world that is torn apart by conflict. We’re a war museum, not a military museum, so we explore all aspects of warfare. We don’t just look at the technology or hardware, we look at how whole societies were geared towards conflict. One of the key things we consider is innovation in war: you get innovation in medicine, innovation in weaponry, but war also acts as a great catalyst for art and for accelerating artistic thought. The Dazzle schemes inspired the artists that were applying them, so they actually made their own artworks based on what they saw. Wilkinson was one such artist; another was Wadsworth, who created a wonderful series of woodcuts (which we hold in the museum) based on the Dazzle schemes that he was applying in Liverpool.
People are are surprised that something as avant-garde and innovative and colourful could make an appearance in the First World War; we often think of that conflict as fought in black, white and grey. It’s also astonishing just how bold these shapes are; they’re something you associate with Op Art and the 1960s, someone like Bridget Riley. I think that is what is fascinating about Dazzle – it’s a really beautiful artistic innovation and an amazingly creative concept, brought into being to address a critical practical need.
With thanks to James Taylor and the Research and Information Department at IWM
Postcards depicting Dazzle ships from the IWM Collections and the original FLEET OF DAZZLE PATTERNITY print can be bought at the IWM Shop