Norman Wilkinson (1878 – 1971) was a British artist in oil, watercolour and drypoint, usually of marine subjects. An illustrator and poster artist, he also made an important contribution in both World Wars in the field of camouflage, namely dazzle camouflage.
Educated at Berkhamsted School and St Paul’s Cathedral choir school, he had little training in art but largely developed his style through his maritime career.
In 1898 he started contributing to The Illustrated London News and The Illustrated Mail which was the start of a long association. In Paris in 1899 he studied figure painting but was already set upon working on marines. With his love of the sea he travelled extensively including visits to Spain, Germany, Italy, Malta, Greece, Aden, Bahamas, United States, Canada, and Brazil. He was elected R.I. in 1906.
During World War I he served at the Dardanelles, on submarine patrol in the Mediterranean, and on a minesweeper in the English Channel. While never an official war artist, he produced a number of works during this period.
After active service in the Navy during the First World War, the artist conceived and organised the Dazzle Department at the Royal Academy, inventing a radical camouflage for the British and allied fleets. The ships were painted with a startling multi-coloured pattern of diamonds and stripes which was designed to mislead enemy commanders as to the size, course, speed and nature of the vessel. Although dazzle painting was modified during World War II, he was made Inspector of Camouflage, overseeing the disguise of aircraft, aerodromes and buildings.
As a poster designer, he reached his highest artistic level. His posters were well-planned and executed in broad tones of colour with a skilful use of black to strengthen the design. He made his first poster (of the Irish steamer crossing from Holyhead to Dublin) in 1905. It was the first to illustrate the product as just one element of a broader landscape and its revolutionary design was a major influence in the development of the pictorial poster. The artist went on to organise the celebrated commissioning of poster designs from members of the Royal Academy for the London Midland and Scottish Railway company in the 1920s. Through the dissemination of his posters to railway stations, schools, and government offices throughout the world, he became one of the most familiar artists in the British Empire.
He was elected Hon. Marine Painter to the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1919 and P.R.I. in 1937. He was knighted in 1948 and appointed a CBE in 1948. The artist created a painting titled “The Approach to Plymouth Harbour” for the smoking room of the RMS Titanic, which sank with the ship. One of the finest marine painters of this century, he is well represented in many public collections listed below.
Prolific and long-lived, Wilkinson led an active and adventurous life until his death in 1971. A regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy, he was president of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours and a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.
Museums & Galleries
Royal Academy, Royal Society of British Artists, Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, Walker Art Gallery- Liverpool, Royal Society of Artists- Birmingham, Beaux Arts Gallery, Imperial War Museum, National Railway Museum, Ulster Museum, National Maritime Museum and the Science Museum.