Artists go to war – DAZZLE camouflage exhibition and study day

Historians at Southampton have for the past four years been primarily responsible for the Faculty of Humanities’ Great War: Unknown War centennial programme. There have been an impressive range of events, and it’s not over yet, with more public lectures to come in the autumn and a Question Time event where a panel of experts will answer audience questions about the First World War.

Saturday study days have been a feature of our programme, and in 2015, 2016, and 2017 we took an important event and explored its international, national, and local significance: respectively Gallipoli, Jutland, and Lawrence’s attack on Gallipoli. This year is different in that the study day at Avenue Campus on Saturday 30 June is DAZZLE: Disguise and Disruption in War and Art and it complements a stunning exhibition of the same name at St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in Lymington (to be followed by an autumn exhibition at Southampton City Gallery on Dazzle artists post-1918).  Supported by Tate Britain, the National Maritime Museum, the Imperial War Museum, etc., this is an exhibition which one would normally expect to see in London or Edinburgh.

In April 1917 Dazzle painting was invented by the artist Norman Wilkinson to help protect British and Allied shipping from U-boat attacks. Bold irregular patterns of colour were painted on to the sides and superstructure of merchant and Royal Navy ships in order to confuse German submarine commanders observing their prey through a periscope: U-boat captains had to act quickly when firing a torpedo firing so as to avoid detection.  2500 British ships were painted in Dazzle camouflage across the final eighteen months of the war, with the US Navy copying Wilkinson’s initiative.  The success of such an ambitious initiative reflects the size and scale of the British war effort by 1917-18.

Organised by the Lymington exhibition’s curator, Dr James Taylor, formerly Curator of Fine Art at the National Maritime Museum, the Great War Unknown War study day explores how Dazzle camouflage was adopted and implemented, and its close connection with modernist art in early twentieth-century Britain, notably Vorticism.

If you want more information about the study day then e-mail me [], but, whatever you do this summer, get down to Lymington and see DAZZLE: Disguise and Disruption in War and Art – it really is a remarkable experience.

Adrian Smith, Emeritus Professor of Modern History

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