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Dazzle Ships - The Art Of Confusion



  
The man finally credited with the idea of dazzle painting ships during the First World War was the British artist Norman Wilkinson. Several other people claimed the idea and others contributed, including a Liverpool art dealer, Archibald Phillips who had submitted to the Admiralty, in 1915, a number of camouflage designs that included a dazzle effect. Whilst on a patrol ship in the dangerous waters around Britain in 1917, Norman Wilkinson had a brainwave. As a Royal Navy volunteer in World War One, he was all too aware of the threat from Germany’s U-boats. He decided he could use his artistic skills to protect Allied ships. He realised that it was impossible to paint a ship in camouflage that would hide it from the sights of a submarine commander, so instead, he proposed that the “extreme opposite” was the answer.

WW1 ship painted in dazzle camouflage


Instead of trying to make the ship vanish on the ocean waves, he developed a radical camouflage scheme that used bold shapes and violent contrasts of colour. His purpose was to confuse rather than conceal. Norman Wilkinson wrote to the Admiralty with this idea for dazzle camouflage. Intrigued, they sent a ship to him at Devonport Naval Base and Wilkinson was ordered to oversee its painting to demonstrate how his plan would work. Norman Wilkinson’s dazzle camouflage was certainly eye-catching, but how could it Possibly help a ship avoid being torpedoed? Wilkinson never expected for his camouflage to hide a ship, but to confuse U-boat commanders before they fired their torpedoes. When the periscope broke through the surface of the water, the commander would normally have only seconds to locate his target and fire. He had to be quick to avoid being spotted. U-boats were very vulnerable, and merchant ships were, in the main, armed to protect themselves. A ship was a moving target and to score a hit, he had to fire the torpedo ahead of the vessel. Wilkinson felt that his dazzle camouflage would make this more difficult. Its contrasting Colours and shapes broke up a ship's form. This would make it more difficult for a U-boat to work out a ship’s speed and direction. Suitably impressed, the Admiralty made Wilkinson the head of a new dazzle camouflage section. He assembled a team of artists and model-makers at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. They created hundreds of unique camouflage patterns. Wilkinson’s camouflage was also rolled out across Britain’s merchant fleet. It also impressed the American Navy, who applied it to their own ships. One US newspaper described their fleet as a "flock of sea-going Easter eggs".

SS Matilda Weems an American cargo ship,
Built by Ramage & Ferguson Ltd., Leith,
painted as a dazzle ship 23rd July 1918


The Edmund Gardner re-painted as a Dazzle Ship

Renowned artist Carlos Cruz-Diez worked with the idea of dazzle using the historic Edmund Gardner pilot ship owned and conserved by the Merseyside Maritime Museum. The work has been realised by painters from Cammell Laird and the commission has transformed the Edmund Gardner into a ‘dazzle ship’. The Edmund Gardner pilot ship is situated in Canning Graving Dock opposite the Museum of Liverpool. From 2 April the quayside next to the dazzle ship will be open 10am-5pm every day for visitors to get a closer look.  It will be returned to the original livery in late 2015 and the attention the vessel will receive during the project will help in her long term preservation.




The Mersey Ferry ‘Snowdrop’ has also been given the dazzle treatment, designed by esteemed British pop artist Sir Peter Blake, the eye-catching pattern will cover the ‘Snowdrop’ ferry for two years as part of the World War One Commemorations. Named ‘Everybody Razzle Dazzle’ the project is commissioned by Liverpool Biennial, 14–18 NOW, the First World War Centenary Art Commissions, and Tate Liverpool in partnership with Merseytravel and National Museums Liverpool (Merseyside Maritime Museum). It is supported by Arts Council England, National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund and Department for Culture Media and Sport. the Mersey Ferry has become the only operating Dazzle Ship in the UK!





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Sources

Merseyside Maritime Museum
Mersey Ferries
National Archives
Liverpool Central Library

Robert F Edwards


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