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Camouflage and Art: Design for Deception in World War 2

by Henrietta Goodden
London: Unicorn Press, 2007
192 pp. 120 illustrations, color and b&w. Trade, $55.00
ISBN: 978-0-906290-87-3.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa, USA.


The current heightened interest in camouflage can be at least partly attributed to Charles Darwin. In The Origin of Species, first published in 1859, he hypothesized that the evolution of species occurs not through divine intervention but by autonomous natural selection, and that the likelihood of survival is weighted in favor of those that are better fitted than others. By the turn of the century, the study of natural camouflage (known then as "protective coloration") became a research theatre for the confirmation of Darwin’s theories. Knowing that, it is of additional interest to find (as this book ably documents) that one of the chief participants in wartime British camouflage was Robin Darwin (1910-1974), a painter and descendent of the famous naturalist.

During World War II, Robin Darwin became secretary to the British Camouflage Committee, where he spoke in favor of using artists as camouflage experts, along with architects, engineers and scientists. Later, a few years after the war, when the Royal College of Art was reopened and reorganized, Robin Darwin was appointed its director. One of the achievements of this book is to reveal the surprising extent to which artists associated with the college (whether before or after the war) were also directly connected with the development of camouflage: indeed, in the years that followed the war, nearly all the school’s faculty in graphics, printmaking, industrial and furniture design, and jewelry, along with a number of tutors and guest artists, had in some way served as camouflage advisors.

A further purpose of the book is more inclusive: divided into 10 chapters (with specific subject areas as Civil Camouflage, RAF Camouflage, Army Camouflage, Desert Camouflage, Admiralty Camouflage and so on), it provides a more generalized overview of the whole of British camouflage during World War II, as undertaken by a wide range of artists, not just those with direct links to the RCA. The roster of camouflage artists is lengthy and includes (among numerous others) such more or less familiar names as artists Frederick Gore, Stanley Hayter, Roland Penrose, Edward Wadsworth, David Pye, Edward Seago and Julian Trevelyan; architects Hugh Casson and Basil Spense; stage designers Robert Medley and Oliver Messel; fashion designer Victor Stiebel; and zoologist (and scientific illustrator) Hugh B. Cott.

Few people are better suited for putting this book together than is Henrietta Goodden, a British authority on fashion design, who currently teaches at the Royal College of Art and who is the daughter of the late Robert Goodden, one of the RCA teachers who also served as a naval camouflage advisor.

At the moment there is a frenzy of on-going research about camouflage, both natural and military, much of it still in the interests of understanding natural selection. Anyone who knows the existing literature will appreciate the significance of this book: It provides us for the first time with a tirelessly researched, well-written account of a slice of the oddball connection between Modern-era art and camouflage (especially British Modernism), a part that was there but not fully explored. Plentifully supplemented by camouflage-related artwork, historic wartime photographs, government documents, and hand-drawn field instructions (many of which appear in print for the first time), this book is a rich, indispensable source for future work within this field.

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 21 Number 1, Autumn 2007.)



Updated 1st September 2007

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