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Norman Wilkinson ( 1878 – 1971 )

Norman Wilkinson CBE RI was a British artist who usually worked in oils, watercolors and drypoint. He was primarily a marine painter, but he was also an illustrator, poster artist, and wartime camoufleur. Wilkinson invented “Dazzle Painting” to protect merchant shipping during World War I. Read More

Norman Wilkinson

Wilkinson was born in Cambridge, England, and attended school at Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire and at St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School in London. His early artistic training occurred in the vicinity of Portsmouth and Cornwall, and at Southsea School of Art, where he was later a teacher as well. He also studied with seascape painter Louis Grier. At age 21, he studied academic figure painting in Paris, but by then he was already interested in maritime subject matter.

Wilkinson’s career in illustration began in 1898, when his work was first accepted by the Illustrated London News, for which he then continued to work for many years, as well as for the Illustrated Mail. Throughout his life, he was a prolific poster artist, designing for the London and North Western Railway, and the London Midland and Scottish Railway. It was mostly because of his fascination with the sea that he travelled extensively to such locations as Spain, Germany, Italy, Malta, Greece, Aden, Bahamas, United States, Canada and Brazil.

During World War I, while serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, he was assigned to submarine patrols in the Dardanelles, Gallipoli and Gibraltar, and, beginning in 1917, to a minesweeping operation at HMNB Devonport.

In April 1917, German submarines (called U-boats) achieved unprecedented success in torpedo attacks on British ships, sinking nearly eight per day. In his autobiography, Wilkinson remembers the moment when, in a flash of insight, he arrived at what he thought would be a way to respond to the submarine threat.

He decided that, since it was all but impossible to hide a ship on the ocean (if nothing else, the smoke from its smokestacks would give it away), a far more productive question would be: How can a ship be made to be more difficult to aim at from a distance through a periscope? In his own words, he decided that a ship should be painted “not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as to the course on which she was heading”.

After initial testing, Wilkinson’s plan was adopted by the British Admiralty, and he was placed in charge of a naval camouflage unit, housed in basement studios at the Royal Academy of Arts. There, he and about two dozen associate artists and art students (camoufleurs, model makers, and construction plan preparators) devised dazzle camouflage schemes, applied them to miniature models, tested the models (using experienced sea observers), and prepared construction diagrams that were used by other artists at the docks (one of whom was Vorticist artist Edward Wadsworth) in painting the actual ships. In early 1918 Wilkinson was assigned to Washington, D.C. for a month, where he served as a consultant to the U.S. Navy, in connection with its establishment of a comparable unit (headed by Harold Van Buskirk,Everett Warner, and Loyd A. Jones). After World War I, there was some contention about who had originated dazzle painting. When Wilkinson applied for credit to the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, he was challenged by several others, most notably by John Graham Kerr who had developed a disruptive camouflage paint scheme earlier in the war. However at the end of a legal procedure, Wilkinson was formally declared the inventor of dazzle camouflage and awarded monetary compensation.

In the Second World War, Wilkinson was again assigned to camouflage, not in dazzle-painting ships (which had fallen out of favour) but with the British Air Ministry, where his primary responsibility was the concealment of airfields. He also travelled extensively to sketch and record the work of the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy and Coastal Command throughout the war. In September 1944 an exhibition, The War at Sea, of 52 of the resulting paintings was shown at the National Gallery. The exhibition included nine paintings of the D-Day landings, which Wilkinson had witnessed from HMS Jervis plus naval actions such as the sinking of the Bismarck. In 1945 and 1946 the exhibition toured Australia and New Zealand. The War Artists’ Advisory Committee bought one painting from Wilkinson and he donated the other fifty-one paintings to the Committee.

In 1906, Norman Wilkinson was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (RI) becoming its President in 1936, an office he held until 1963. He was elected Honourable Marine Painter to the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1919. He was a member of the Royal Society of British Artists, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Royal Society of Marine Artists, and Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Water Colours. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the 1918 New Year Honours, and a Commander of the Order (CBE) in 1948 Birthday Honours.

Wilkinson’s marine paintings are displayed in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, Royal Academy, Royal Society of British Artists, Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Fine Art Society, Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, Abbey Gallery, Royal Society of Artists, Birmingham, and Beaux Arts Gallery.

The Imperial War Museum has over 30 ship models painted in a variety of dazzle schemes by Wilkinson, mostly from 1917.

Norman Wilkinson created for the first class smoking room of the RMS Titanic a painting titled Plymouth Harbour, which perished when the ship went down; as well as a comparable painting, titled The Approach to the New World, which hung in the same location on the Titanic’s sister ship, the RMS Olympic.

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