DAZZLE – a brief history

In April 1917 Dazzle painting, also known as Dazzle camouflage, was invented by the artist Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971) to offer some protection to British and Allied shipping. Bold irregular patterns of colour were painted on to the sides and superstructure of merchant and naval ships to confuse the U-boat commanders observing their prey through the periscope, who had to act fast to avoid detection.

Charismatic, clubbable Cambridge-born Wilkinson was a first-rate artist who created oils, watercolours, illustrations, prints and posters. In addition to marine subjects, that included commissions for RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic, he painted planes, trains, fishing and river landscapes in a realist and quasi-impressionist style. Prior to the war he sailed on merchant ships to South America.

‘Estuary Scene’ by Norman Wilkinson, Oil Painting, 65cm x 52cm x 3cm
On loan from the Isle of Wight Heritage Service

In World War I Germany used submarines to blockade Britain and prevent vital food and supplies reaching her shores. In 1917, between February and April, the U-boats sank more than 500 merchant ships, and in the second half of April an average of 13 ships were sunk every day.

Britain was on her knees and needed a solution fast. The timing was perfect for Norman Wilkinson’s letter to the Admiralty in which he presented a plan to protect shipping. His scheme became known as Dazzle painting, or Dazzle camouflage.

In June 1917 Wilkinson was transferred to the Directorate of Naval Equipment that oversaw the running of his Dazzle department in the art schools of the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Wilkinson was both operations manager and creative director who managed a team of men (including around 18 officer artists) and women drawn from art colleges, one of whom, Evelyn Mackenzie, became his wife.

The men made ship models, often no more than 8 inches in length, that were painted with Dazzle, each side having a different design, so that the enemy did not get used to the appearance of the ships. Larger ships received several different patterns. They were tested in a purpose-built but rudimentary theatre, constructed by Dazzle officer Frank Mason. Ship models were placed on a

turntable and viewed through a periscope to establish the most effective patterns.

Dazzle model ship made at the Royal Academy in 1917
Photo credit: Camilla Wilkinson

The approved designs were developed into hand-coloured plan sheets, by many of the women

workers, and then copied for despatch to various ports, where Dazzle officer artists would supervise the painting of the ships. A secret Dazzle handbook assisted the officers and foremen in their work.

The development and refinement of the Dazzle designs was driven partly by testing in the theatre, but more importantly from seamen’s reports and captain’s records observing the ships at sea.

Inspiration was drawn from many sources, although Wilkinson never acknowledged a formal debt to Cubism, Futurism, or Vorticism.

Wilkinson’s scheme was not about concealment, but rather confusion. Torpedoes were fired in anticipation of where the ship was heading, and so Dazzle aimed to break up the constructional lines, making it difficult to estimate the speed, range and course. It was hoped that the attack might be abandoned, miss, or in the confusion hit a less vulnerable part of the ship, allowing it to escape, or if armed fight back.

Thousands of merchant ships and hundreds of naval vessels were Dazzled in the war. Wilkinson visited the United States to set up Dazzle departments, and one US reporter later noted that their ships resembled, ‘a fleet of sea going Easter Eggs’.

After the war many of the Dazzle officers, including the former Vorticist Edward Wadsworth, exhibited striking depictions of Dazzled ships at the Royal Academy of Arts, and other galleries. In 1922 the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors formally recognised Wilkinson’s Dazzle painting scheme.

The award acknowledged Dazzle’s morale boosting impact, rather than its effectiveness during the war. However, this remains a puzzle as the equivalent Dazzle scheme in the United States was deemed to be a success. What is without doubt is that thousands of merchant ships and hundreds of naval vessels were Dazzled, mainly in Europe and the United States, constituting the world’s largest public art and design display ever assembled.

Wilkinson noted in his autobiography A Brush with Life (1969) that his first wife Eva (Evelyn Harriet Mackenzie) had died within two months of their golden wedding in 1968. And, “that at the age of ninety he had the good fortune to meet again and marry a lady I had known for many years before. She too was widowed and in her company I share my time contentedly between her flat in the Isle of Wight and my house in Hampshire”.

Norman and Joyce Wilkinson (née Moss Blundell) married in April 1968 in London and spent a lot of time in Seaview on the Isle of Wight and Wilkinson became well known for painting in Seaview and other parts of the island. In fact, Wilkinson had a long personal and professional relationship with the IW, notably in relation to his appointment as the honourable marine painter to the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1919.

We can even see one of Wilkinson’s oil paintings here at Quay Arts as part of the DAZZLE + DISRUPT exhibition, kindly on loan from the Isle of Wight Heritage Service.

Wilkinson died in Seaview on 30th May 1971. He left an estate valued at £21,091.48 (net), and £2,000 to Joyce coincidentally the amount he was awarded as a prize for his invention of Dazzle painting.

Text: (with some edits) by James Taylor and produced for the exhibition Dazzle: Disguise and Disruption in War and Art held at St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in 2018.



360 Virtual Exhibition Tour

Jeannie Driver

Lisa Traxler


Dazzle Animation, 2017 
by Camilla Wilkinson 

Camilla Wilkinson is an architect and Senior Lecturer at the University of Westminster. She has been researching her grandfather Norman Wilkinson’s Dazzle patterns and geometries for merchant and naval ship camouflage resulting in her published paper ‘Distortion, Illusion and transformation: the evolution of Dazzle Painting, a camouflage system to protect Allied shipping from Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, 1917-1918’. Covering the origin, development and interpretation, including testing, re-drawing and reconstructing the processes used. This view into the Dazzle Collections has resulted in the production of an animation showing the transformation from inspiration to concept. 

Dazzle Discussion with Camilla Wilkinson



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