Tuesday, 20 October 2015

See art

Unlike the army or the air force whose actions are clear to see after the event naval activity is not so easily captured visually.  Sea battles take place without seeing the enemy, submarines are mostly invisible and ships sink without trace but as this book clearly shows there is plenty of art available showing maritime activity during periods of conflict and peace.

One of the strengths of the book is that the six chapters cover a remarkable range of naval activity from famous battles, daily life above and below deck, a naval P.O.W. camp, WRENS, public memorials and nicely the Merchant Navy is also included.  Each chapter starts with an illustrated essay followed by a Plate section. 

Of all the artists shown I like Stephen Bone's work the most (he was the son of Muirhead Bone, Britain's first official war artist) page eighty-one has a beautiful crayon rendering of the galley on HMS Norfolk and on page 101 an oil painting of the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, both have enough detail to suggest they were completed after preliminary sketches.  Gladys Reed, a WREN, shows the feminine side of the war effort with four simple crayon pictures on page 161.  John Worsley was the only official war artist to spend time in a P.O.W. camp: Marlag 'O', six paintings of his life there are shown.  Three of Charles Wheeler's stunning Portland stone memorials, completed in the early fifties are on pages 190--191, rather than the conventional mythical marine creatures for a wall frieze he executed over-life-size sailors in their work clothing.

I mentioned above that the book's coverage was wide ranging.  Part of the Art, artists and the Home Front chapter looks at sea-camouflage called dazzle.  Rather than try to conceal a ship why not make it totally prominent but do it in such a way as to confuse the enemy.  Model ships were painted with geometric stripes of varying thickness that broke up the natural silhouette so it would not be clear from a distance which was the front or back or what kind of vessel it was.  The most successful designs were painted on naval and merchant ships.

Christine Redding has edited the work of seven contributors who are all curators at the Royal Museums Greenwich.  I found their essays full of interesting detail, not only about the many artists but also how their work related to the broader scope of the war years.  There are ninety plates (all in color) and seventy-one other pictures and this throws up my only slight annoyance with the book. Plates have their own numbers as do the other pictures (referred to as Fig. 47, 48 et cetera) it's confusing to find the Plates that are mentioned in the text as they all fall at the end of each chapter.  Far better just to number every image in the book from one onwards which would make them much easier for the reader to find throughout the pages.

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