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 defence schemes.

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 non-combatant 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.


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