A dazzling wartime commemoration on the Thames

Art and auctions, Associations, Exhibitions, HR, Maritime History and Museums, Paintings and Sculpture — By on July 16, 2014 at 8:53 PM
Installation on HMS President (1918) as part of 14-18 NOW. Courtesy Tobias Rehberger the artist, and Pilar Corrias, London. Getty Images.

Installation on HMS President (1918) as part of 14-18 NOW. Courtesy Tobias Rehberger the artist, and Pilar Corrias, London. Getty Images.

A dazzling wartime commemoration on the Thames:  artist Tobias Rehberger applies a 2014 ‘dazzle camouflage’ to HMS President (1918),  By James Brewer

One of London’s most outstanding maritime sights, the historic HMS President (1918), has become even more spectacular after being covered from stem to stern – during a two-week dead-of-night undertaking – in an eye-catching dazzle print.

To mark the centenary of the First World War when many British ships were painted in ‘dazzle camouflage, ’ artist Tobias Rehberger was commissioned to transform the visual impact of the veteran warship moored permanently on the Thames at Victoria Embankment.

The invitation came from a group of cultural bodies co-operating in the commemoration – 14-18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions and Liverpool Biennial in association with University of the Arts London Chelsea College of Arts, HMS President (1918) and Tate Liverpool in partnership with Merseyside Maritime Museum.

Tobias Rehberger. Getty Images.

Tobias Rehberger. Getty Images.

Tobias Rehberger’s work was unveiled on July 14 2014 in perfect weather conditions: under a blue sky patterned with cotton wool clouds of the type beloved of one of last century’s greatest artists, René Magritte.
Under her original name of HMS Saxifrage, nearly a century ago HMS President (1918) was tricked out in confusing patterns to disorientate the enemy as to her course and intentions on the naval battlefield. She belongs to the first class of warship built specifically for anti-submarine warfare and is one of the last three Royal Navy ships in existence built during the First World War* to protect hundreds of shipping convoys sailing to and from Britain’s ports.

Mr Rehberger was an inspired choice for the commission, as he has been fascinated for some years by the story of the wartime dazzle technique. In 2009 he rendered an entire café, furniture and all, in such geometric, loudly decorative print, for which he was awarded the Golden Lion at the 53rd International Venice Biennale.

HMS President (2014) as decked out by artist Tobias Rehberger.

HMS President (2014) as decked out by artist Tobias Rehberger.

His design for HMS President (1918) (the Thames ship is known thus with its year of build appended to distinguish her from HMS President, a Royal Naval Reserve shore establishment a short distance east in St Katharine’s Way) brings to mind the exposed pipe-work in the radical designs of the Pompidou Centre and the Lloyd’s building.

Chris Cooper, the ship-keeper of HMS President (1918),  revealed to us the technical background to the vessel’s stunning new look. The material used for the new dazzle effect is not paint – it is a self-adhesive, stiff plastic, several hundred sheets of it, “and you hang it like wallpaper.” Mr Cooper explained: “With a complicated design like this, you have to come up with a computer-generated map of the ship so that they can create a three-dimensional model.” A graphic designer assembles the plans from the artist’s drawings, “and every single sheet has to be tested to make sure that the design fits.” Contractors employing workers with the skills of steeplejacks were hired to fix the sheets to the hull, starting work at 3am every night because that is when river traffic is minimal: the daytime volume of craft navigating the Thames would have caused turbulence, threatening the smooth application of the vinyl.

Tobias Rehberger on board HMS President (1918). Getty Images.

Tobias Rehberger on board HMS President (1918). Getty Images.

Carrying out the dazzle transformation with the ship in the water in 2014 was a much more complex job than the task of coating her – by men wielding giant brooms in a drydock – during World War One.

The principle of disruptive camouflage to confuse hostile shipping was introduced in 1914 by the scientist John Graham Kerr to the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and was initially called ‘parti-colouring.’ Heavy losses of merchant shipping to U-boats increased the demand for camouflage.

Rather than hide the ships, it was decided to paint them so cleverly that it was difficult for a hostile submarine to calculate the course they were on, and to position itself for attack. Contrasting stripes and curves produced such haphazard shapes that from a certain perspective it looked as though there were three ships instead of one.
The marine painter Norman Wilkinson, a future president of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, is said to have coined the term ‘dazzle painting’ for the system of glaring colours and jagged lines.

Each pattern was unique, with many of the designs created by women from the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Designs were painted on wooden models, and viewed through a periscope to assess how they would work at sea, before being scaled up. An artist named Edward Wadsworth, who supervised the application of dazzle patterning to more than 2, 000 ships, later made his own series of paintings on the theme.

The sensational style attracted artistic attention to the extent that Picasso claimed it had been invented by the Cubists.

Close-up of new dazzle camouflage on HMS President (1918). Photo copyrightChris Wainwright.

Close-up of new dazzle camouflage on HMS President (1918). Photo copyright Chris Wainwright.

Under her original name HMS Saxifrage,  HMS President (1918) was one of the Flower-class, and her successors evolved into the modern frigate. She was launched at the shipyard of Lobnitz & Co of Renfrew, Scotland.

The ship was in 1982 sold to private owners, and in subsequent hands took on her latest lease of life. Remarkably spacious inside, she is home to more than 20 start-up and small companies working in offices located on various decks, including in the former engine-room. Businesses include architects, health companies, a James Bond query answering service, and a right-wing think tank. Stationed close to Blackfriars Millennium Pier and listed on the National Register of Historic Vessels, the ship is touted as “one of London’s best-kept secrets in providing quality office space.”

The ship was out of service for a long period from 1922, but in its refurbished form is busier than ever. She can be hired as a venue for themed parties ranging from Hollywood to Halloween to Rio Carnival, and for wedding receptions and conferences.

Tobias Rehberger, whose talents encompass design, sculpture, furniture-making and installation,  was born in the Neckar River town of Esslingen, Germany. He studied at the Städelschule, Frankfurt, where he has been professor of sculpture since 2001 and until recently deputy rector of the Fine Arts Academy.

HMS Kildwick in dazzle camouflage , part of Surgeon Parkes Collection of Ships Portraits. Courtesy of Imperial War Museums.

HMS Kildwick in dazzle camouflage , part of Surgeon Parkes Collection of Ships Portraits. Courtesy of Imperial War Museums.

He said that reviving the dazzle concept for the London ship “gave me the opportunity to take my work out of the exhibition space and to project a new, contemporary visual experience on to an object, while also returning it to its past identity.”

In Liverpool, veteran Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez has ‘dazzle camouflaged’ the historic pilot ship Edmund Gardner as a companion work, in response to a joint commission by 14-18 NOW, Liverpool Biennial and Tate Liverpool. Conserved by Merseyside Maritime Museum, the ship is on full view in a drydock next to Albert Dock and opposite the new Museum of Liverpool.

Famed for his use of light, colour and movement in kinetic and optical art, Carlos Cruz-Diez  is among artists celebrated at the new exhibition Radical Geometry, at the Royal Academy in London.

14-18 NOW is a cultural programme across the UK marking the war centenary, and is encouraging contemporary artists at home and overseas to explore in large-scale projects the resonance today of the shattering conflict. 14-18 NOW is an independent project within Imperial War Museums and receives public funding from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England.Liverpool Biennial, Tate Liverpool and 14-18 NOW have jointly commissioned Carlos Cruz-Diez to work with the idea of ‘dazzle’ camouflage in partnership with National Museums Liverpool using an historic pilot ship conserved by Merseyside Maritime Museum. The Edmund Gardneris situated in a dry dock adjacent to Liverpool’s Albert Dock and this will be a new public monument for the city.

Dazzle Ship by Carlos Cruz-Diez,  Tate Liverpool. ©Tate.

Dazzle Ship by Carlos Cruz-Diez, Tate Liverpool. ©Tate.

The ‘dazzle’ technique, immortalised in Alfred Wadsworth’s 1918 painting Dazzle-ship in Drydock at Liverpool, was undertaken and inspired by artists of the time. Wadsworth himself supervised the camouflaging of over 2, 000 warships.

Unlike other forms of camouflage, dazzle works not by concealing but by making it difficult to estimate a target’s range, speed and direction. Artist Norman Wilkinson, credited with inventing the technique, explained that dazzle was intended primarily to mislead the enemy: each ship’s dazzle pattern was unique in order to avoid making classes of ships instantly recognisable to the opposition.

Liverpool Biennial, Tate Liverpool and 14-18 NOW have jointly commissioned Carlos Cruz-Diez to work with the idea of ‘dazzle’ camouflage in partnership with National Museums Liverpool using an historic pilot ship conserved by Merseyside Maritime Museum. The Edmund Gardneris situated in a dry dock adjacent to Liverpool’s Albert Dock and this will be a new public monument for the city.

The ‘dazzle’ technique, immortalised in Alfred Wadsworth’s 1918 painting Dazzle-ship in Drydock at Liverpool, was undertaken and inspired by artists of the time. Wadsworth himself supervised the camouflaging of over 2, 000 warships.

Unlike other forms of camouflage, dazzle works not by concealing but by making it difficult to estimate a target’s range, speed and direction. Artist Norman Wilkinson, credited with inventing the technique, explained that dazzle was intended primarily to mislead the enemy: each ship’s dazzle pattern was unique in order to avoid making classes of ships instantly recognisable to the opposition.

Liverpool Biennial, Tate Liverpool and 14-18 NOW have jointly commissioned Carlos Cruz-Diez to work with the idea of ‘dazzle’ camouflage in partnership with National Museums Liverpool using an historic pilot ship conserved by Merseyside Maritime Museum. The Edmund Gardneris situated in a dry dock adjacent to Liverpool’s Albert Dock and this will be a new public monument for the city.

The ‘dazzle’ technique, immortalised in Alfred Wadsworth’s 1918 painting Dazzle-ship in Drydock at Liverpool, was undertaken and inspired by artists of the time. Wadsworth himself supervised the camouflaging of over 2, 000 warships.

Unlike other forms of camouflage, dazzle works not by concealing but by making it difficult to estimate a target’s range, speed and direction. Artist Norman Wilkinson, credited with inventing the technique, explained that dazzle was intended primarily to mislead the enemy: each ship’s dazzle pattern was unique in order to avoid making classes of ships instantly recognisable to the opposition.

HMS President (1918) and the Edmund Gardner are expected to retain their dazzle coats until the turn of the year.

*the others are the 1914 light cruiser HMS Caroline in Belfast, and the 1915 monitor HMS M33 in Portsmouth.

 

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