Norman Wilkinson (artist)

Norman Wilkinson
Born Norman L. Wilkinson
24 November 1878(1878-11-24)
Cambridge, England, U.K.
Died 31 May 1971(1971-05-31) (aged 92)
Occupation Artist

Norman Wilkinson CBE aka Norman L. Wilkinson (24 November 1878 – 31 May 1971) 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. During World War I, Wilkinson was the first to propose the use of disruptive coloration in naval camouflage, for which he coined the well-known term "dazzle painting" or dazzle camouflage.[1]



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.[1]

Illustration career

His illustration career 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 numerous posters for the London and North Western Railway, and the London Midland and Scottish Railway (Cole 1992). It was mostly because of his fascination with the sea that he traveled extensively to such locations as Spain, Germany, Italy, Malta, Greece, Aden, Bahamas, United States, Canada, and Brazil.

World War I camouflage

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 (Wilkinson 1969, p. 79).

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" (Wilkinson 1969, p. 79).

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)(Hartcup 1980; Behrens 2002, 2009; Wilkinson 1969).

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. At the end of a legal procedure, he was formally declared the inventor and awarded monetary compensation (Wilkinson 1969, pp. 94–95).

World War II camouflage

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 (Goodden 2007).

Awards and honors

In 1906, 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 a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1948.[2]

Exhibits and collections

One of the finest marine painters of the century, his work has been represented in a wide variety of collections, galleries and other venues, among them 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.

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.

Further reading

  • Behrens, Roy R. (2002), False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books. ISBN 0-9713244-0-9.
  • ___ (2009), Camoupedia: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books. ISBN 9780971324466.
  • Cole, Beverley and Richard Durack (1992), Railway Posters, 1923-1947. London: Laurence King.
  • Goodden, Henrietta (2007), Camouflage and Art: A Design for Deception in World War 2. London: Unicorn Press. ISBN 978-0-906290-87-3.
  • Hartcup, Guy (1980), Camouflage: A History of Concealment and Deception in War. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  • Newark, Tim (2007), Camouflage. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-51347-7.
  • Wilkinson, Norman (1919), "The Dazzle Painting of Ships," as reprinted (in abridged form) in James Bustard, Camouflage. Exhibition catalog. Edinburgh: Scottish Arts Council, 1988, unpaged.
  • ___ (1922), "Naval Camouflage" in Encyclopædia Britannica. 12th edition. Vol. 1, pp. 546–547.
  • ___ (1969), A Brush with Life. London: Seeley Service.

See also

External links


  • Swinburne, Henry Lawrence Swinburne, Norman Wilkinson, John Jellicoe. (1907). The Royal Navy. London: A. and C. Black. OCLC 3594590
  • Obituary, Mr Norman Wilkinson, Inventor of "dazzle" painting, The Times, Jun 01, 1971.
  1. ^ a b Times obituary, see above
  2. ^ "Museum Head Knighted," New York Times. June 10, 1948.

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