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Cubism, Camouflage & Colin Moss

Cubism, Camouflage & Colin Moss

Colin Moss ‘Cubist figures’ (1950) Oil on Board

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Cubism, with its all complexity and restrictions, and with its links to Colin Moss’s wartime work as a camoufleur, provided a rich artistic vein that the artist could mine in the post-war years. Following his demobilization from the Army in 1947, Colin Moss returned to the UK and restarted a career that the war and the army had put on hold. 

 

The Birth of Cubism

The term Cubism was inadvertently coined by the French painter Henri Matisse. Matisse was a juror for the Salon d’Automne in 1908 and, on seeing George Braque’s painting “Maisons à l’Estaque” (Houses at L’Estaque)” remarked “They’re made of little cubes!” and promptly rejected the work. His comment was later relayed to art critic Louis Vauxcelles and Cubism was born.

George Braque Maisons à l'Estaque Houses in the French countryside reduced to cubes and spheres with stylised trees in the foreground

George Braque ‘Maisons à l’Estaque’ (1908) Oil © Photo: UNESCO Adagp, Paris 2012

 

The Cubist Revolution

At the beginning of the 20th century, Cubism stood European art, with its devotion to perspective and realistic portrayal, on its head. Influenced by Paul Cezanne, George Braque and Pablo Picasso broke objects down into separate planes and then placed multiple versions of them within the same space on the canvas. Whilst at first glance their work appeared flat and two-dimensional, it actually depicted different viewpoints and perspectives within a single confine.

Pablo Picasso Les Demoiselles d’Avignon five naked women with figures composed of flat, splintered planes and faces inspired by Iberian sculpture and African masks

Pablo Picasso ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907) Oil © 2020 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Museum of Modern Art

 

 

Cubism gives birth to Camouflage

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Cubist ideas of breaking objects, and bodies, into fragments and splinters suddenly took on a new relevance. Whilst armies in previous conflicts had flaunted their soldiers in uniforms with brightly coloured coats and hats, combatants of the first global conflict wanted to disappear. The advent of airplanes that could fly over soldiers huddling in trenches gave urgency to the need to disguise and dissemble.

And so Cubist ideas of breaking up line and form, distracting with patterns and disrupting with colour gave birth to strategic camouflage.  Pablo Picasso is said to have exclaimed, on seeing a camouflaged canon in Paris in 1917, “It was us [the Cubists] who created that!”.

Officers serving in the French military camouflage unit became known as camoufleurs and the term was subsequently used in both world wars by all branches of the military and by all allied nations.

 

Dazzle Ships

The Royal Navy and Merchant Navy also adopted Cubist ideas, to protect warships and merchant vessels from German torpedoes, as did the US Navy. Ships were painted with various designs intended to distort the tell-tale features of a ship. Some designs distorted perspective, others made it difficult for attackers to focus on the ship as a target, creating delay or hesitation in the order to fire.

Roy Behrens, in the Encyclopaedia of Camouflage, refers to the dazzle ships as resembling ‘Cubist paintings on a colossal scale’.

A schematic drawing for Dazzle camouflage for the Royal Navy 'Drake class' armoured cruiser/converted minelayer HMS King Alfred (1917) showing the ship with dazzle camouflage markings

A schematic drawing for Dazzle camouflage for the Royal Navy ‘Drake class’ armoured cruiser/converted minelayer HMS King Alfred (1917) Art.IWM DAZ 0029 2 © Imperial War Museum

The ship has a dazzle camouflage scheme which distorts the appearance of her bow.

USS West Mahomet – in port, circa November 1918. The ship has a dazzle camouflage scheme which distorts the appearance of her bow. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

 

Colin Moss – Camoufleur

Colin Moss served as a camoufleur from 1939 – 1943, working on the concealment of civilian installations. The camoufleurs of the British Camouflage Directorate were theatre set designers, practicing artists, sculptors, architects. They were recruited as “there was a natural partnership based on their aptitude for good visual recall, and their understanding of scale, colour and tone”.

The idea was to break up forms and outlines so that objects on the ground were difficult to spot, even against a shifting background (ie looking down from a plane) thus confusing “a pilot at a minimum of five miles distant and 5,000 feet up throughout daylight.” During his service in the Camouflage Directorate, Colin Moss designed a number of camouflage schemes for installations such as Stonebridge Park Power Station, London.

The influence of Cubism on the camoufleurs of World War II is easy to spot, not just in the desire to disrupt appearance and shape, but in the earthy, muted colour schemes. Early Cubist painters used restricted colour palettes to enhance the flattening effect. Camoufleurs (on both sides of the conflict) adopted similar colour schemes to further flatten and distort appearances.

German paint sample case from World War 2 for camouflaging aircraft runways

German paint sample case for camouflaging aircraft runways “Camouflage” by Tim Newark

Colin Moss Camouflaged Cooling Towers watercolour showing a power station camouflaged with patterns and designs in earthy colours

Colin Moss ‘Camouflaged Cooling Towers’ (1943) IWM_ART_LD_003024 © Imperial War Museum

 

Life After Camouflage

Following his years in the Camouflage Directorate, in 1943 Colin Moss joined the Life Guards, part of the Household Cavalry, and served in the Middle East and Palestine until he was demobbed in 1947. This period largely put his artistic endeavours on hold, as life became swamped by the practicalities and harsh relentless discipline of soldiering. However, a few months before he was demobbed, Colin Moss produced three versions of a Palestinian landscape – one in pencil, then as a lithograph and finally, a hand coloured version of the lithograph.

Colin Moss Study for Palestinian Landscape cubist depiction of a desert landscape with houses and palm trees

Having spent four years working as a camoufleur, it is not surprising that he chose to produce work in a similar, Cubist, manner as life began to return to normal. The influence of the “analytical cubists” such as George Braque and Issachar Ber Rybak is evident.

 

Re-thinking my Career

“I had to re-think my whole career when I came back from the war. I started again with a totally different approach … I was doing lots of different things because I didn’t know what I wanted to be and it took me several years to form a personality!” Colin Moss: Life Observed

Having returned to his home town of Ipswich, and now working as a lecturer at Ipswich Art School, Colin Moss continued to experiment with different techniques and ideas. But his cubist-influenced, camoufleur background still resurfaced and those early days after the war saw a number of excursions into familiar territory.

Colin Moss “Cubist Landscape” (1948) Oil a cubist landscape with trees, steps and a small boat in muted colours

Colin Moss ‘Cubist Landscape’ (1948) Oil

The unnamed piece below is thought to date from the late 1940s and illustrates the Cubist practice of using contrasting shading (known as chiaroscuro), dense cross hatching and patterning and, of course, multiple and contrasting vantage points.

Colin Moss, unnamed Cubist landscape (c1949) a black, white and grey cubist depiction of a landscape with trees, steps, a small rowing boat and water

Colin Moss, ‘Untitled Cubist Landscape’ (c1949)

Colin Moss “Cubist Still Life” (c1949) brown and white depiction of a bottle on a table

Colin Moss ‘Cubist Still Life’ (c1949)

Colin Moss ‘Cubist figures’ (1950) Oil on Board two female nudes depicted in red, orange and brown triangles and spheres against a green and brown cubist background

Colin Moss ‘Cubist figures’ (1950) Oil on Board

 

Moonlight Over the Third Reich

Following his retirement from teaching in 1979, Colin Moss revisited his wartime experiences after a gap of nearly four decades. During this time he produced a number of works (such as Playing Soldiers, Infantry and Self-Portrait as a Soldier) that capture the grim existence of an infantry man.  One of the most haunting works he produced during this period was “Moonlight over the Third Reich”. During a trip to Poland, Colin Moss visited both the Auschwitz death camp and the Museum of Warsaw. He was profoundly moved by what he saw there.

“The painting arose from, I think, a feeling that I too must make some kind of record of the Holocaust.” Colin Moss: Life Observed

Three versions of this piece exist, each deeply affecting and troubling – these are not easy works to look at. And once more we see the artist returning to his wartime, camoufleur/cubist roots with “jumbled” perspectives, flattened palettes and strongly delineated patterning.

The linocut version of “Moonlight over the Third Reich” was acquired by Colchester & Ipswich Museums in the 1980s whilst the oil painting was generously gifted to the Ben Uri Museum in St John’s Wood, London by Colin’s widow, Pat in 2009.

Colin Moss Moonlight over the Third Reich a nightmarish cubist landscape of skulls and faces behind barbed wire

Colin Moss ‘Moonlight over the Third Reich’ (1982), linocut, oil, pencil Colchester & Ipswich Museums (linocut) The Ben-Uri Museum, London (oil)

 

Two Flavours of Cubism

The Cubist movement emerged in 1908 and lasted into well into the 1920’s. During that time two distinct forms of Cubism developed. The Tate website defines the two movements in its section of Art Terms:

Analytical cubism ran from 1908–12. Its artworks look more severe and are made up of an interweaving of planes and lines in muted tones of blacks, greys and ochres.

Synthetic cubism is the later phase of cubism, generally considered to date from about 1912 to 1914, and characterised by simpler shapes and brighter colours.

Synthetic cubist works also often include collaged real elements such as newspapers. The inclusion of real objects directly in art was the start of one of the most important ideas in modern art.

Bottle and Fishes is an excellent example of Braque's foray into Analytic Cubism, while he worked closely with Picasso. This painting has the restricted characteristic earth tone palette rendering barely perceptible objects as they disintegrate along a horizontal plane

Analytical cubism George Braque ‘Bouteille et Poissons’ c.1909-12 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020 Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/georges-braque-803

Juan Gris The Sunblind 1914 Light slips through a venetian blind, casting a shadow from the wine glass onto the small table. The illusionistic appearance of the blind contrasts with the real newspaper, which Gris incorporated into the work.

Synthetic cubism Juan Gris ‘The Sunblind’ 1914 Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gris-the-sunblind-n05747  “The Sunblind” (1914) is a papier collé (pasted paper) or more specific form of collage that is closer to drawing than painting.

 

And if you want to try Cubism yourself …

Below is a link to a 4-minute tutorial by the talented Aaron Wemer who skilfully illustrates many of the ideas that infuse Cubism, whilst producing a wonderful, analytical cubist drawing.

https://youtu.be/V15rXg1nJ6w

Colin Moss – From Camoufleur To Soldier

Colin Moss – From Camoufleur To Soldier

Painter, draughtsman, camoufleur, printmaker, teacher and soldier

Colin Moss served as a camoufleur from 1939 – 1943, working on the concealment of civilian installations. During his service he designed a number of camouflage schemes for installations such as Stonebridge Park Power Station, London.

At the beginning of the war, the Germans already knew where several of Britain’s vital industrial targets were located. Recruited solely from the foremost artists of their generation, the aim of the Leamington-based camouflage officers (“camoufleurs”) was to guard Britain’s civil installations by confusing “a pilot at a minimum of five miles distant and 5,000 feet up throughout daylight.”

Camouflaged Cooling-Towers, 1943, Watercolour, 36.8cm x 54.6cm, (War Artists Advisory Committee purchase © Imperial War Museum)

 

Why Artists?

The camoufleurs of the Camouflage Directorate were theatre set designers, practicing artists, sculptors, architects. All were recruited as “there was a natural partnership based on their aptitude for good visual recall, and their understanding of scale, colour and tone”.

Their designs featured strident patterns, in an array of colours, painted onto buildings. The aim was to break up forms and outlines so that objects on the ground were difficult to spot, even against a shifting background (ie looking down from a plane).

The camouflage schemes they designed either hid the target, so it merged into its surroundings, or deceived the eye as to its size and placement.

More surreal techniques included adding road markers to roofs or standing concrete cows on them, to fool Luftwaffe bomb aimers or, at the very least, to make them to hesitate and so miss their target.

 

Smoke and Mirrors

The patterns were designed to break up and disrupt the objects outline and consisted of a mix of dark and light colours, painted next to each other. At power stations like Stonebridge, where Colin’s “The Big Tower” (below) was painted, the power station’s fuel was modified to emit darker smoke that would contrast with its surroundings for “disruptive colouration”.

(L-R) Stonebridge Park Power Station with camouflage scheme in place 1941 (B&W photo), Camouflaged Factory Buildings, 1941, Watercolour, Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, The Big Tower, Camouflaged, 1943, Watercolour 63.5 cm x 45.3cm, (War Artists Advisory Committee purchase © Imperial War Museum)

 

As the war went on, and the threat from the German air force decreased, the UK Government scaled back its commitment to civil camouflage. Inevitably, this meant that the work of the camoufleur unit was wound down. However, before the camoufleurs were reassigned to new war work, “the Ministry decided it wanted a pictorial record of aspects of camouflage and all the artists were given about a month’s paid leave to do paintings of whatever jobs they had designed.” Colin Moss : Life Observed.

Colin spent his month’s leave painting watercolours of the various camouflage schemes he had designed, before joining the Life Guards (part of the Household Cavalry) on active service in the Middle East. A number of those watercolours are in the ownership of the Imperial War Museum in London, others are housed by Leamington Spa Museum & Art Gallery.

 

Military Service

Once the aerial threat from the German Airforce was over, Colin went on active service. He was initially deployed to North Africa (in 1943) and later, once the war was over, Palestine, as part of the effort to establish the state of Israel.

The images below are from a number of Colin’s sketchbooks, now kept in the Tate Archive in London. This is the first time they have been published.

(L-R) North African Refugees Pen, ink, gouache & wash, 24.8cm x 27.5cm, Two Soldiers Talking Pastel, 59.5cm x 42cm, Middle East Battle School Pencil, ink, gouache & wash, 37.7cm x 25.2cm

 

L-R North Palestine 1946, Lithograph, 37.5cm x 47.8cm, Portrait of an Officer, Seated, Palestine, 1946, Pencil, 51cm x 36.7cm

 

For his final for 6 months of military service (in 1947), he taught in the Army Education Corps (now the Educational & Training Services – ETS) gaining invaluable experience before commencing his post-war career, lecturing at the Ipswich Art School.

On the Tube 1947 Watercolour & ink, 24.5cm x 30.8cm

 

Post-War Memories

As Colin’s career at the Ipswich Art School came to an end in 1979, his war-time experiences bubbled to the surface. Over the next decade, he generated a series of sketches, drawings, paintings, linoprints and watercolours, reflective of his experiences, memories and opinions on “war and the pity of war”.

(L-R) Exodus, 1985, Charcoal and pastel, 48cm x 40.5cm, “Anatomical Casts on a Battlefield” 1978 Pencil 76.5 cm x 56 cm (Colchester & Ipswich Museums)

 

(L-R) Playing Soldiers, Oil & collage on board 99 x 120.5 cm Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service, Sentry Under Red Sun, Oil on board 91.8cm x 71.5cm

 

One of his most haunting paintings from this era is “Moonlight over the Third Reich”. The influence that camouflage dazzle techniques, and art movements such as cubism and surrealism, had on camoufleurs like Colin throughout their artistic careers, can be seen vividly throughout this work. The painting “Moonlight over the Third Reich” was donated to the Ben Uri Gallery & Museum, London by Colin’s widow Pat in 2009.

Moonlight over the Third Reich, 1974-1982 Ben Uri Gallery & Museum, London, (L-R) Linocut, 50cm x 40.5cm, Oil on canvas, 91cm x 75.8cm, Pencil, 69.9cm x 51.8cm

 

The Camoufleur Alumni

At its peak, the Camouflage Directorate numbered over 230 staff, including a number who, post-war, went on to become some of the most significant and illustrious artists and designers of their generation.

Members of the group included:

  • Christopher Ironside (designer of the UK’s decimal coinage)
  • Janey Ironside (professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art)
  • Richard Guyatt (professor of graphic design at the Royal College of Art)
  • Eric Schilsky (head of the School of Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art)
  • leading lights of the English Surrealist movement Julian Trevelyan and Roland Penrose
  • set designer, painter and sculptor Victorine Foot
  • Robert Goodden (professor of silver smithing at the Royal College of Art)
  • Robert Darwin (principal of the Royal College of Art)

and, of course, Colin Moss.

 

Camouflage Exhibitions

In 2007, the Imperial War Museum in London put together a wide-ranging and extensive exhibition on camouflage. It was the first one of its kind in showing the history of camouflage and its use in wildlife, popular culture and, of course, how camouflage had been used in warfare. The exhibition featured the work of the Leamington Spa camoufleurs including four of the watercolours that Colin painted in 1943 of the camouflage schemes he worked on.

In 2016, the Imperial War Museum loaned these watercolours to Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum for its 2016 exhibition “Concealment & Deception”. The book accompanying the exhibition can be accessed online here .

(L-R) Captain Colin William Moss – Life Guards, 1943, Poster for the Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum 2016 Exhibition “Concealment & Deception” featuring Colin’s 1941 watercolour Camouflaged Factory Buildings

Concealment & Deception – the Darkest Hour

At the start of the war, the Germans already knew where many of Britain’s important industrial targets were situated. Recruited exclusively from the most talented artists of their generation, the aim of the Leamington-based camouflage officers (“camoufleurs”) was the concealment of Britain’s civil installations by confusing “a pilot at a minimum of 5 miles distant and 5,000 feet up during daylight.”

Camouflaged Cooling-towers , Colin Moss

Colin Moss “Camouflaged Cooling Towers” 1943 © Imperial War Museum

Why Artists?

The camoufleurs of the Camouflage Directorate were artists, sculptors, architects, designers, – recruited because “there was a natural partnership based on their aptitude for good visual recall, and their understanding of scale, colour and tone”.

Their designs featured disruptive patterns, in a range of colours, painted onto buildings. The aim was to break up forms and outlines so objects were difficult to locate and detect, even against a shifting background (ie when looking down from a plane). The camouflage schemes they designed either concealed the target by causing it to merge into its surroundings, or deceived the eye as to its size and location.

Smoke and Mirrors

The disruptive patterns consisted of a mixture of dark and light colours being painted next to each other to break up the object. At power stations like Stonebridge (where Colin’s “The Big Tower” was completed), the fuel was changed to produce darker smoke that would contrast with its surroundings for “disruptive colouration”.

The Big Tower, Camouflaged, Colin Moss

Colin Moss “The Big Tower, Camouflaged” 1943 © Imperial War Museum

Scrim

Camouflage netting (known as scrim) was used as a cheap and reliable way for the concealment of factories, power stations and other civilian installations. Netting would be positioned over the roofs of buildings and across the streets. On top of the netting there would be fake structures, such as housing and trees, so from the air it would look like a residential area. This was used to great effect during the Battle of Britain with many installations, vital to the war effort, escaping the attention of the Luftwaffe.

Water Camouflage, Colin Moss - an example of concealment

A view across a water enclosure outside a power station covered with suspended camouflage nets
Colin Moss “Water Camouflage” 1943 © Imperial War Museum

The Rink

The more complex concealment schemes were tested on scale models in the Rink in Leamington Spa. Requisitioned by the government in 1939, the (Skating) Rink was located at the bottom of the Parade in Leamington.

As Colin explained many years later to his biographer, Chloe Bennett “You worked on a scale model and … there was a turn-table which you could put it on and a moving light, which represented the sun, and you got up on a platform, which was about the height that a bombing pilot would come in at, and turn the thing around to see how it reacted to different times of day.”

The turntable - Colin Moss - beginning of the concealment process

Journalist Virginia Ironside (daughter of camoufleur Christopher Ironside) memorably described the Rink as “a giant studio” where “artists slaved away over enormous turntables on which they had constructed models of factories and aerodromes, lit by ever moving moons and suns attached to wires”.

Edwin La Dell The Camouflage Workshop, Leamington Spa 1940 - working on concealment schemes

Edwin La Dell “The Camouflage Workshop, Leamington Spa, 1940” © Imperial War Museum

Waste not, Want not

The ideal paint substances that were used for the camouflage schemes were products derived from oil installations. Henrietta Goodden (daughter of camoufleur Robert Goodden ) says in her book “Camouflage and Art, Design for Deception in World War 2”, “Camouflage was a natural consumer in the wartime ethic of “waste not, want not” and much industrial refuse was recycled in the effort to conceal roads, buildings and scarred ground.”

Men working on a Camouflage Scheme, Colin Moss - conealment of a civil installation

Colin Moss “A Camouflage Scheme in Progress” 1943 © IImperial War Museum

After the Darkest Hour

As the war went on, and the threat from the Luftwaffe diminished, the British Government scaled back its commitment to concealment of civil installations and the work of the camoufleur unit was wound down. However, before the camoufleurs were reassigned to other war work, “the Ministry decided it wanted a pictorial record of aspects of camouflage and all the artists were given about a month’s paid leave to do paintings of whatever jobs they had designed.” Colin Moss : Life Observed.

Colin spent his month’s leave producing several paintings of his camouflage and concealment work before joining the Life Guards (part of the Household Cavalry) on active service in the Middle East. Many of the paintings are now held by the Imperial War Museum in London, others by Leamington Spa Museum & Art Gallery.

Captain Colin Moss 1943

Captain Colin Moss, 1943

 

Colin Moss “Playing Soldiers” Ipswich Borough Museums & Galleries, depicting men in desert kit playing cards before the next manoeuvre

Colin Moss “Playing Soldiers” Ipswich Borough Museums & Galleries, depicting men in desert kit playing cards before the next manoeuvre

The Camoufleur Alumni

At its peak the Camouflage Directorate employed over 230 staff, including several who, post-war, went on to become some of the most influential and distinguished artists and designers of their generation.

Members of the group included Christopher Ironside (designer of the UK’s new decimal coinage) , Janey Ironside (professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art), Richard Guyatt (professor of graphic design at the Royal College of Art), Eric Schilsky (head of the School of Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art), leading lights of the English Surrealist movement Julian Trevelyan and Roland Penrose, set designer, painter and sculptor Victorine Foot, Robert Goodden (professor of silver smithing at the Royal College of Art), Robert Darwin (principal of the Royal College of Art) and, of course, Colin Moss.

To see more images from Colin’s time in the Camoufleur Unit, click on the album below:

https://www.facebook.com/pg/ColinMoss.WW2Camoufleur/photos/?tab=album&album_id=1549847955058900

 

 

The Camoufleurs and their work

In 1939 Colin found secure employment with the Air Ministry before being transferred to the Ministry of Home Security. Looking back on that period in 1990, Colin commented “they knew the war was going to happen and they knew that they were going to need to camouflage factories and power stations and that the best people to do this were artists.” Colin Moss: Life Observed

All the camoufleurs working at Leamington Spa were artists, architects, sculptors, set designers and so on. The directorate represented the largest concentration of artists in the country at the time. Many of the camoufleurs went on to have successful post-war careers in the creative arts. People such as Eric Schilsky, Edward Seago, Cosmo Clarke, Richard Guyatt and Christopher Ironside.

A portrait of Eric Schilsky by Colin Moss (1941)

Disruptive patterns were at the heart of the camoufleur’s work. Painted onto buildings, to break up forms and outlines, disruptive patterns made objects more difficult to locate and detect, even against a shifting background (ie when looking down from a plane).

The ideal paint substances that were used were products derived from oil installation. The patterns consisted of a mixture of dark and light colours being painted next to each other to break up the object. Also, at power stations like Stonebridge (where Colin’s cooling tower painting was done), the fuel was changed to produce darker smoke that would blend with its surroundings.

Stonebridge Park Power Station – on the right is the cooling tower, bottom left is the rail yard and top left is a contemporary photo of the whole station (1941)

The brushes the painters used were made out of rope strands that were bound together by scrap tin to allow the painter to be able to cover a large area with one stroke. There was an emphasis on practicality rather than finesse and not wasting materials; hence the use of scrap tin.

A camouflage scheme in progress (1943), Colin Moss

Ground patterning was applied first and then representations of buildings in an overall disruptive pattern of dark and light shapes that masked the entire area. The simple equipment allowed painters to work quickly, often able to cover 110 square metres a day. In addition to the paint effects, scrim was used on many camouflage schemes. Scrim is a strong and coarse hessian based fabric. Colin used scrim containing different colours to cover buildings to change the building’s appearance.

Textured roofs with scrimTextured roofs with scrim (1943), Colin Moss

Scrim was also used to tape windows to protect damage to the inside of houses from bomb blasts and on artillery emplacements to make the battery look like natural foliage from the air. Scrim was cheap to manufacture and this was why it was so widely used. Colin’s painting of textured roofs shows scrim being used on buildings.

To see more of Colin’s war time water colours and paintings held by the Imperial War Museum, click on the link here.

How do you Camouflage a Power Station?

Design and deception in World War Two

At the start of the war, the Germans already knew where many of Britain’s important industrial targets were situated. The aim of the camoufleurs was to “confuse a pilot at a minimum of 5 miles distant and 5,000 feet up during daylight.” (Ministry of Home Security).

Camouflage officer Robin Darwin wrote in 1943 “the bomb aimer must rely on what he sees with his eyes and a moment’s doubt, the slightest hesitation may send his bomb far wide of the mark.” Concealment and Deception, The Art of the Camoufleurs of Leamington Spa 1939-1945.

Stonebridge power station - composite imageStonebridge Park Power Station with camouflage

Initial Planning

All the work done by the camoufleurs came from the initial observations and jottings. These were made by the model designers when they flew over installations that were to be camouflaged.  Their work was vital to the camoufleurs. It meant they had the most accurate representations of how the buildings and their surroundings looked from the air.

Baginton Aerodrome

The pilots were from the RAF photo unit based at Baginton aerodrome in Coventry. The pilots were often too old for operational service, but had a great deal of experience in the air. This meant the designers could make notes at all the different heights and times of day that they required. These notes and photographs were then used by the camoufleurs to develop perspective drawings of the proposed camouflage schemes.

Baginton aerodrome Baginton Aerodrome Dec 1940

The Rink

The more complex camouflage schemes were tested on scale models in the Rink in Lemington Spa. Requisitioned by the government in 1939, the (Skating) Rink was located at the bottom of the Parade in Leamington.

As Colin explained many years later to his biographer, Chloe Bennett “You worked on a scale model and … there was a turn-table which you could put it on and a moving light, which represented the sun, and you got up on a platform, which was about the height that a bombing pilot would come in at, and turn the thing around to see how it reacted to different times of day.”

The turntable - Colin MossColin Moss “The Turntable in the Skating Rink, Leamington Spa, 1939-40”

Virginia Ironside (daughter of camoufleur Christopher Ironside) memorably described the Rink as “a giant studio” where “artists slaved away over enormous turntables on which they had constructed models of factories and aerodromes, lit by ever moving moons and suns attached to wires”.

Edwin La Dell “The Camouflage Workshop, Leamington Spa, 1940”

“The work in the Roller Skating Rink was supported by the presence of a map section and photographic archive. Staff used expensive, high-quality (German made!) Leica cameras on tripods to take photographs of the models before and after camouflage had been applied.” Concealment and Deception, The Art of the Camoufleurs of Leamington Spa 1939-1945.

Once the camouflage design was finalised, the model, along with colour charts showing the tints of paint to be used, was sent to the site. Ground patterning was applied first.  Then representations of buildings in an overall disruptive pattern of dark and light shapes (that masked the entire area) were added.

The brushes the painters used consisted of rope, bound together by scrap tin to allow the painter to cover a large area with one stroke. There was an emphasis on practicality rather than finesse and not wasting materials; hence the use of scrap tin. The simple equipment allowed painters to work quickly, often able to cover 110 square metres a day.

Camouflage Scheme in Progress - Colin MossColin Moss “Camouflage Scheme in Progress”

The Art of Camouflage in World War II

The Art of Camouflage

The camoufleurs of the Camouflage Unit were artists, designers, and architects.  They were recruited because “there was a natural partnership based on their aptitude for good visual recall, and their understanding of scale, colour and tone”.

Their designs featured disruptive patterns, in a range of colours, painted onto buildings. The aim was to break up forms and outlines so objects were difficult to locate and detect. This was important even against a shifting background, for example, when looking down from a plane.

Waste not, Want not

The ideal substances that were used were products derived from oil installations. Henrietta Goodden (daughter of camoufleur Robert Goodden ) says in her book “Camouflage and Art, Design for Deception in World War 2”, “Camouflage was a natural consumer in the wartime ethic of “waste not, want not” and much industrial refuse was recycled in the effort to conceal roads, buildings and scarred ground.”

Smoke and Mirrors

The patterns consisted of a mixture of dark and light colours painted next to each other to break up the object. At power stations like Stonebridge (where Colin’s cooling tower painting was done), the fuel was changed to produce darker smoke that would contrast with its surroundings for “disruptive colouration”.

A Talent for Concealment

Camouflage netting (known as scrim) was used as a cheap and reliable way to camouflage factories, power stations and other civilian installations. Netting would be positioned over the roofs of buildings and across the streets. On top of the netting, there would be fake structures, such as housing and trees.  From the air, it would look like a residential area. This was vital to the war effort and was used to great effect during the Battle of Britain. As a result, many installations escaped the attention of the Luftwaffe.

Water Camouflage

Water Camouflage, 1943, Colin Moss © Imperial War Museum
View across a water enclosure outside a power station covered with suspended camouflage nets

Colin Moss: Life Observed

“You worked on a scale model and painted it in a certain range of colours, which was used on all camouflage work. There was a turntable which you put it on and a moving light, which represented the sun, and you got up on a platform, which was about the height that a bombing pilot would come in at, and turned this thing around to see how it reacted to different times of day.”

[They assumed that the bombers would be flying at 1500 feet as this was the optimum bombing height.] Extract from “Colin Moss: Life Observed” (Chloe Bennett, Malthouse Press)

Turn Table 1943

Turn Table, Colin Moss, 1943 Watercolour 28cm x 42 cm
Leamington Spa Museum and Art Gallery