Now You See It ... Now You Don't ... as a New Exhibition on the History of Camouflage Opens at the Imperial War Museum This Month, Tim Newark Reveals the Contribution Made by English Surrealists to Wartime Defiance Schemes
Newark, Tim, History Today
SURREALISM BURST ONTO THE ENGLISH art scene in 1936 with an exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in London. It was organized by Roland Penrose, a Surrealist painter and collector then in his mid-30s. His greatest coup was to get Salvador Dali to turn up at the private view and give a lecture while wearing a diving suit and holding two white greyhounds on a leash.
Four years later, Penrose would be giving lectures to a completely different audience--the Home Guard--on the art of camouflage. But he was still a Surrealist at heart and included slides of his lover, Lee Miller--naked, covered only in camouflage cream and netting--to keep his audience interested.
When war came in 1939, Penrose sought a noncombatant role. With Stanley William Hayter and other artists, they founded the Industrial Camouflage Research Unit at 7 Bedford Square in London. It set about working with factories to create camouflage schemes to protect them from aerial bombing. The government was quick to see the value of camouflaging civilian targets and, by the following year, Penrose was lecturing the Home Guard on camouflage techniques.
Penrose was an excellent communicator and wrote a booklet called Home Guard Manual of Camouflage. It was a thorough analysis of the nature and application of camouflage. He devoted a chapter to camouflage in nature and then showed how these lessons could be applied by the Home Guard to the defence of their country. As in the First World War, the great challenge was to defy enemy aerial photography.
'In order to obtain concealment', instructed Penrose, 'it would appear at first sight that resemblance in colour is the most important factor. Actually, this is not the case. The fact is that a smooth surface reflects more light than a rough surface. In consequence, supposing we have a smooth board and rough piece of bath towel, both painted with exactly the same colour, the smooth board will inevitably look light in tone.'
Penrose explained it was more important to match the texture of the background than with colour. A coat of paint alone would not do the job. This was because aerial photography eliminated colour from its observations but accentuated differences in tone.
As an artist, Penrose understood the nature of colours and pigments and explained that green--the most obvious colour to use in any camouflage scheme--had a basic flaw in that it usually contained too much blue in its mixture.
'There is very little blue-green in nature,' he said. 'Also, when a green paint contains too much blue there is every probability that in time the yellow in it will fade and the resulting colour appear even more blue ... owing to the persistence of the Prussian blue that is frequently used in green paint.'
The Home Guard had limited resources and so Penrose looked to cheap, easily available materials. He realized that many Home Guards were deployed as aircraft spotters and needed to camouflage their faces as they looked upwards.
'A mixture of soot and flour will make a good paste which sticks to the skin,' he recommended. 'By some who live in country districts cow-dung has been advocated, and for those who have the courage to use it, it can be highly recommended in spite of its unpleasantness, since it retains good colour and texture when dry.'
Net curtains were recommended as a good basic camouflage material for personal coverage, while insulating tape could be wound round the barrel of a rifle. He suggested ways of making sniper suits that included painting a boiler suit and then using a shrimp net to cover the head, or making a suit out of hessian or sacking and then painting it with a disruptive pattern. …