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Dazzle: Disguise and Disruption In War and Art

20 December 2020

Dazzle: Disguise and Disruption In War and Art, James Taylor, 2016, ISBN 978-1-59114-636-0, 128 pp.

Dazzle: Disguise and Disruption In War and Art by James Taylor (front cover)

We know that form follows function but, on occasion, it can go the other way around. This is the case of the World War One’s (WW I) Dazzle camouflage technique developed in Britain. James Taylor wrote this book in readiness of the 100th year anniversary of Dazzle’s development and he does the anniversary justice. Dazzle is chock full of explanations, history and images. Ship camouflage, fashion and art abound and are described in many interesting ways by Taylor.

Dazzle camouflage was developed by marine artist Norman Wilkinson and applied to several thousand Allied ships during WW I. The highly varied geometric patterns made determining the speed and course of a surface ship difficult from a stand off distance—like that of a U-boat or surface raider. Beginning his career was incredibly auspicious with references for his artistic abilities provided by no less than Sherlock Holmes’s creator Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 1890s during his medical practice. Wilkinson’s illustrations and paintings are realistic with a subtle touch of Impressionism to my eye, but take that opinion with a grain of salt.

It was in 1917 that Wilkinson developed the Dazzle technique especially to defeat submarine attacks by taking into account the way ships were viewed from a periscope meter inches above the sea surface. The navies of Britain, Canada and the United States quickly adopted the technique in many permutations as too many cargo ships were being lost to Imperial Germany’s U-boat attacks in too short a period of time. The spectrum of Dazzle schemes illustrated in the book are testament to their variety.

Dazzle camouflage survived WW I and went on to influence dance, art, and fashion—to say the least. In Dazzle, Taylor also tells the all to common a tale of dispute between parties taking credit for a newly successful or popular development. In this case it is Norman Wilkerson versus John Graham Kerr. Dazzle is the unusual story of war’s necessity and a fusion with fashion sensibility as well as the art world—which lasted decades from WW I through WW II. 

Dazzle: Disguise and Disruption In War and Art by James Taylor (back cover)


One Comment leave one →
  1. Nicholas A. Veronico permalink
    20 December 2020 22:16

    Interesting. An unsung part of naval warfare finally comes to light. Great post and thanks for the recommendation.

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