- Norman Wilkinson was a distinguished British maritime painter and landscape artist who worked during the first half of the 20C. The artist also made important contributions to maritime camouflage, during WW1, and to the development of poster design in Britain. Wilkinson was a prolific poster designer for the London Midland and Scottish Railway during throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
Norman Wilkinson was twice married: to Evelyn Mackenzie in 1918, and with whom he had a son and a daughter; and to Joyce Jervis in 1968.
He was awarded an OBE in 1918 and made CBE in1948. Wilkinson was elected President, Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours; and was also appointed Marine Painter to the Royal Yacht Squadron.
He died on the 13th May 1971.
Wilkinson was born in Cambridge on the 24th November 1878. He attended Berkhampstead School and St Paul’s Cathedral Choir School.
Wilkinson received little formal training in art and design. Nevertheless, he developed a facility for rendering the lively bulk of maritime shipping in pen and ink, oils and watercolours. His first commissions for pictures were from the Illustrated London News before WW1. Wilkinson was sufficiently famous for one of his paintings to be used in the decoration of the smoking parlour aboard the Titanic
During WW1, he served on a submarine in the Eastern Mediterranean and on a minesweeper in the English Channel.
Wilkinson’s maritime and artistic experience was acknowledged in his appointment to investigate the problems of camouflaging shipping.
Dazzle Camouflage WW1
The advent of heavily armoured Dreadnought type battleships, before WW1, transformed the terms of engagement in maritime conflict. Firstly, the new battleships provided for much heavier calibre cannon. Secondly, the hydraulic control systems of the gun platforms on the new battleships allowed for a greatly increased rotation and elevation of guns. In consequence, both the range and the arc of fire of the big guns became greater. The risks to shipping were correspondingly increased.
In order to minimise these risks, Wilkinson was invited to consider the advantages of camouflage on shipping. A laboratory was established at Burlington House, London and a team of model builders and painters placed at his disposal. In addition, a number of young British artists also contributed to these efforts.
The specific context of maritime engagement in modern war, with ships at some distance from each other and moving at speed, suggested a need for new forms of camouflage. These were designed to confuse the range-finding calculations of estimating the target’s speed and direction, rather than to disguise the ship from view.
Perhaps surprisingly, Wilkinson found that the most effective forms of camouflage were based on the optical disturbance of dazzle patterns. These were, typically, geometric and angular shapes that broke up the outline of the ship. The resulting confusion was sufficient to cause enemy range-finding calculations to go awry.
The official reaction to these proposals remained equivocal. However, and in the context of Modern British painting, the camouflage patterns elaborated by Wilkinson have provided a practical link to the experimentation of Englsh Vorticst artists and other avant-guardists, such as Edward Wadsworth, Christopher RW Nevinson, and David Bomberg.
Poster Design for the London Midland and Scottish Railway
The Railways (Grouping) Act, 1921, provided for the consolidation of over 120 railway companies into four large geographical groups. By far the largest of these was the London Midland and Scottish Railway. The railway provided services between London and Liverpool, and up to Glasgow and beyond.
A consequence of railway grouping was to focus competition between the east-coast and west-coast mainlines to Scotland. The London and North Eastern Railway, serving Edinburgh, was quick to recruit a number of exceptional poster designers to promote its services. In response, Wilkinson was invited to co-ordinate a campaign of artistic advertising by members of the Royal Academy. Amongst the artists chosen were such luminaries as Sir David Young Cameron, George Clausen, Stanhope Forbes, George Henry, Wiliam Orpen, and Adrian Stokes.
Norman Wilkinson provided several contributions to the initial series of posters. His designs revealed a remarkable facility for both landscape painting and for the detailed depiction of machinery. This was especially important in relation to the railway and shipping interests associated with the LMS. Accordingly, Wilkinson was best placed of all the pictorial advertising artists to benefit from the patronage of the LMS.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Wilkinson became one of Britain’s best-known poster designers. Wilkinson claimed to be the originator of the modern pictorial poster. His idea was to replace the piecemeal visual presentation of the traditional railway poster and to offer a single, larger, picture as the focus of attention. Wilkinson also understood that in order to assure the effectiveness of this advertising the image would require a level of sensitive simplification.
In general, Wilkinson eschewed the brutal geometry and flat-colour simplifications associated with the work of modernist poster design in favour of a more pictorial style. Nevertheless, Wilkinson’s poster style drew on his experience of battleship camouflage in the modernist style.
The patterns of light and shade, across mountaintops or factory, were rendered so as to appear visually coherent – the exact opposite of the kinds of optical disturbance that he had supervised during WW1. Wilkinson’s familiarity with the problems of the visual reading of large objects made him especially skilful in rendering complex topography in the simple terms required of the poster form.
Wilkinson enjoyed enormous prestige during his own lifetime and was recognised as Britain’s most distinguished maritime painter of the mid-20C. Nevertheless, Wilkinson remains an ambiguous figure in the history of Modern British painting with neither his contribution to landscape painting, nor that to poster design, fully recognised.