For anyone walking along the embankment this week you may have been baffled by an unusual looking war ship berthed on the Thames
and that is exactly how it should be – just as German U-boat captains were baffled and confused 100 years ago.
The ship is there to shed light on one of the lesser-known battle strategies of the war: getting artists to paint British ships so that they became floating optical illusions making it difficult for the enemy to target them accurately.
Dazzle camouflage, also known as razzle dazzle or dazzle painting, was a family of ship camouflage used extensively in World War I and to a lesser extent in World War II and afterwards.
The dazzle concept was invented in 1916 by Norman Wilkinson, a British marine painter and naval commander who took inspiration from Cubist and Vorticist paintings in which ships were covered with bold stripes and complex patterns of geometric shapes in contrasting colours, interrupting and intersecting each other. Instead of blending ships into the horizon, such painters rendered the vessels highly visible to adversaries, but made their size, direction, and armaments maddeningly inscrutable. The tactic was used by all major allied forces in World War I.
Norman Wilkinson explained in 1919 that dazzle was intended more to mislead the enemy as to the correct position to take up than actually to miss his shot when firing. Each ship’s dazzle pattern was unique to avoid making classes of ships instantly recognisable to the enemy.
Dazzle attracted the notice of artists, with Picasso notably claiming cubists had invented it. However it was the vorticist artist Edward Wadsworth, who supervised the camouflaging of over 2,000 ships during the First World War. The Vorticists were the English equivalent of the Italian Futurists, and Edward Wadsworth, a leading Vorticist artist, supervised much of this dazzle ship work.
Peter Saville famously used Edward Wadsworth’s 1919 painting Dazzle Ships In Drydock At Liverpool as the inspiration for the Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark Dazzle Ships album cover. The original is in the National Gallery of Canada. Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett of Assorted iMaGes both made their careers by brilliantly reinventing the past during the 80s, producing album covers for Joy Division, New Order, Buzzcocks, Duran Duran, OMD, and Peter Gabriel, amongst others. The original vinyl version of Dazzle Ships uses Peter Saville’s distinctive design on the gatefold cover and an information graphic on the inner by Malcolm Garrett.
Its very difficult to find colour images of the original WWI designs, but they typically used red, green, yellow, and purple, lavender and mauve greys, and black and white. In 2008, the Rhode Island School of Design announced the rediscovery in its collection of lithographic printed plans for the camouflage of US merchant ships during World War I. The graphics shown are from original WWI ship painting plans and show the intended colour schemes as well as the graphic shapes themselves: diagonals, zig-zags, and arcs, combined using sudden changes in the patterns at seemingly random points used to give impressions of different planes or facets on flat surfaces to break up physical lines and shapes.
The HMS President was built by the UK’s Royal Navy in 1918 for anti-submarine warfare and is one of the last three surviving warships of its kind. The ship has been covered in a surreal and striking “Dazzle camouflage” print by the German artist Tobias Rehberger, as one of the art commissions marking the centenary of the first world war. Tobias Rehberger is noted for his use of black and white graphics that play tricks on the eye.
Hopefully you are now much less baffled and can get down to the embankment to marvel at this historic vessel. Enjoy the sunshine!BACK