Camoufleurs of Leamington Spa 1939 – 1945 Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, 22 July – 16 October 2016
Concealment & Deception tells the story of the camouflage establishment based in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, during World War 2 (1939 – 1945).
The Civil Defence Camouflage Establishment (CDCE) was founded at the start of the war with Nazi Germany to camouflage strategically important installations like factories, power stations and airfields. Later, in 1941, it was renamed the Camouflage Directorate and expanded to include the Admiralty’s naval camouflage section, which camouflaged naval and merchant ships.
This exhibition and an associated catalogue presents the work of the camouflage staff – often known as ‘camoufleurs’ – against the backdrop of life on the Home Front in wartime Leamington Spa.
From 1939 to 1945 life in Leamington Spa was dominated by the Home Front. This included the rationing of essential goods (such as food and clothes) and precautions against air raids (including the evening ‘blackout’). Everyone in the town was affected, including pre-war residents and the influx of newcomers brought by the war, such as evacuees, workers directed to war work and military personnel. The newcomers also included the camoufleurs – many of them scruffy, long-haired types whose ‘arty’ behaviour scandalised some of the older residents. This new temporary population, many of them young and with uncertain futures, brought new vibrancy to what had previously been a sleepy midlands spa town.
The camoufleurs were based in a number of buildings which had been requisitioned for the war effort. The most important were the Regent Hotel on the Parade, which became the headquarters for the CDCE; the Roller Skating Rink on the south bank of the river Leam, which became the workshop for the civil camouflage team; and the municipal Art Gallery on Avenue Road, which became the laboratory for the naval camouflage section. The aerodrome at nearby Baginton became the base for the aircraft used to inspect sites needing camouflage.
Camouflage officers in the civil camouflage team photographed or sketched sites from the air and then used these to develop schemes to either conceal the installations or create nearby decoys to divert enemy aircraft. Elaborate designs for important sites often involved the production of three-dimensional scale models. These were tested in a ‘viewing room’ in the Skating Rink, where different lighting and atmospheric conditions could be artificially recreated. If the intention was concealment, the objective was to cause the sites to merge in with their surroundings, while if it was deception, then a decoy site might involve creating dummy aerodromes or factories to mislead German bombers.
Naval camouflage was more difficult as vessels were usually moving against a constantly changing background and it was difficult to hide smoke from funnels and wake from hulls. The approach of the naval camoufleurs was to produce a scale model of each ship based on plans published in the reference book Jane’s Fighting Ships. The model would then be painted in a design intended to either make the ship less visible or, if that was impractical, to confuse a prospective attacker (often a submarine) as to its speed, direction or size. The camouflage had to be designed for the weather conditions likely to be found in the operational area, for example those in the North Atlantic, Arctic or Pacific. The model was then tested in a large water tank in the Art Gallery, where the likely light, atmospheric and sea conditions could be artificially recreated. Once approved, the design would be applied to the vessel when it was next dockside for maintenance.
At its peak the camouflage establishment employed over 230 staff, including several who went on to become some of the most influential and distinguished artists and designers of their generation. These included Robin Darwin, Richard Guyatt, Christopher Ironside and Tom Monnington. A number of the camoufleurs, including Felicity Fisher (nee Sutton) and Victorine Foot, produced paintings, watercolours and drawings recording their colleagues at work, or showing the sites and ships they had camouflaged. Other pictures showed life in the wartime town, including the damage caused by Luftwaffe bombing raids. Some artists also became involved in the creation of murals for important buildings, including the British Restaurant at the back of the Town Hall, the Regent Hotel, and a local school. Many joined the local branch of the Artists International Association, an organisation of artists opposed to fascism which flourished in Leamington Spa while the camoufleurs were resident. The friendships formed during the war influenced the later careers of many of the staff who had worked together in Leamington Spa.
The exhibition includes an important group of paintings, watercolours and drawings loaned by the Imperial War Museum, complemented by others from Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry, the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds and from private collections. Artists featured include Mary Adshead, Dorothy Annan, Stephen Bone, Louis Duffy, Evelyn Dunbar, Eric Hall, Cedric Kennedy, Edwin La Dell, Colin Moss and James Yunge-Bateman. Their work will be seen alongside clothing, equipment and documents relating to the Home Front in Leamington Spa.
The project draws on over two decades of research carried out locally and nationally to piece together the story of Leamington Spa’s extraordinary but little-known contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany. It has received financial support from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the Friends of Leamington Art Gallery and a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant from the Art Fund. It will be complemented by a series of related events and activities within the town organised by Leamington Camouflage 2016