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Edward Wadsworth 1889-1949
Camouflaged ship in dry dock
Woodcut on japan paper, 1918
Bought from the Sainsbury Trust Fund 1968

Camouflage 'dazzle painting' was thought up by Cambridge-born marine painter Norman Wilkinson a Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, who had written to the Admiralty in April 1917 with an idea of how to paint ships to camouflage them on open water. He explained it as 'a method to produce an effect (by paint) in such a way that all accepted forms of a ship are broken up by masses of strongly contrasted colour'. In October the order came to repaint many military and all merchant vessels and the concept was soon adopted by the other nations. In April 1918, Wadsworth was one of ten men who supervised the painting of ships in dry-docks in British ports. The colours used on the ships were not necessarily always black: softer shades of grey, blue, pale green and even pink, were more common.

Bold zigzags and diagonals had featured in Wadsworth's work from 1914. He had trained at the Slade School of Art and showed two pictures at the New English Art Club in the 1911 exhibition. Roger Fry included two more paintings at his Second Post Impressionism Exhibition in 1913 (all now lost), to hang alongside works by artists including Matisse and Picasso. He became a member of the Vorticists, a short-lived group that celebrated the modern machine-age. Wadsworth had an incredible capacity of assimilating developments in various artistic movements such as Futurism and Cubism (he translated some of Kandinsky's writings for Blast No.1 in 1914), to develop his own individual style. He was also influenced by the German Expressionists, but the rough brutality of their work is some way from the refined exactness of his, enhanced in this print by the special absorbent quality of the Japan paper.

Assigning titles and dates to his woodcuts can sometimes be problematic, but this print almost certainly dates from 1918. There is an impression in the V&A with the title Camouflaged ship in drydock for painting in Wadsworth's handwriting. There are no posthumous reprints of any of Wadsworth's woodcuts because he burned the blocks in 1927, declaring that 'they're finished and done with'. The woodcuts are especially important for this period (1913-18) because so many of his paintings were destroyed. There is a related painting, Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool , 1919, in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, commissioned by the Canadian War Memorial Fund, which is over three metres in height (304.8 x 243.8 cm), demonstrating that Wadsworth was comfortable working with vastly different scales. This small black and white woodcut has a powerful visual impact. The economy of forms and the precision of their alignment make this a very striking image. In 1923 it was adapted for the poster and catalogue cover of an exhibition of British prints in Zurich.


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