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Wilkinson, Norman (1878-1971)
by Scholes, Robert


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Norman Wilkinson (1878 - 1971)

Born in Cambridge in 1878 he was educated at Berkhamsted School of Art. In 1898 he started contributing to The Illustrated News and The Illustrated Mail which was the start of a long association. In Paris in 1899 he studied figure painting at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and sharing a studio with three other students—Maxwell Armfield (also from Birmingham), Keith Henderson and the sculptor Gaston Lachaise, but he was already set upon painting scenes of ships and 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, Hon. Marine Painter to the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1919, P.R.I. in 1937 and awarded the C.B.E. in 1948. His work is well represented in many public collections, including the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

During the Great War he served in the Royal Navy and, while on patrol in 1917 conceived a way of camouflaging ships to make them harder for submarines to spot. This style, called "dazzle," was used by over four thosand merchant ships and around four hundred Brisith naval vessels, and was adopted by the U. S. Navy in 1918.

He is also very well known as an illustrator, having worked on books by Kipling and others, and as the author of books on the technique of painting. His collaboration with Keith Henderson on an illustrated edition of Chaucer's translation of the Romaunt of the Rose was admired by G. R. S. Taylor in The New Age, (NA 4.6:116).

He had no more qualms about applying art to commercial purposes than he had about using it to aid the military.In the 1920s, the London Midland and Scottish Railway began to develop a new policy for poster advertising. It commissioned three posters from Norman Wilkinson and asked for his views on how its advertising could be improved. Wilkinson proposed that, in order to raise standards, members of the Royal Academy should be asked to design a series of posters for the company. Eighteen artists were approached and, with the exception of one, all accepted. The subjects were chosen and allocated by Wilkinson but the artists were then left to carry out the design in their own way.

The first of these posters appeared on the hoardings early in 1924. They were intended to illustrate the life and work of the LMS as well as the artist served. Some of these posters, by artists like William Orpen, depicted industries served by the LMS. This was new ground for the railway poster. Previous posters had advertised the docks and other facilities that they offered to industry but had not shown the industries themselves. The scheme generated an enormous amount of favourable publicity for the LMS and helped to set new standards in design quality for the company.

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