The icy wind swirls and howls as yet another wave breaks over the already frozen bow of this British Escort-Destroyer. With every blast of the salty spray, the icy coating gets thicker and thicker. It pushes this small ship to its limits despite its crew’s best efforts to chip away at the frosty mass. The very little light illuminating this scene is about to be behind the ship as it trudges forward into the frigid darkness. It is the fifth winter of the Second World War.
Painting without Color
The use of color is an important and meaningful choice for an artist to make in their work. So what, then, does the absence of color tell us? For many artists, the choice to paint without color is a difficult one, made for a very intentional reason. For Montague Dawson, this choice was a practical one, but nonetheless, a choice that affected the meaning and interpretation of his work.
A Departure from the Norm
Montague Dawson is perhaps one of the most famous maritime painters, with works in the private collections of presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson, and even the late Queen Elizabeth II. But not particularly his achromatic wartime works which seem to be largely excluded from publications on the artist. No, Dawson is famous for his brightly colored, glowing, nostalgic paintings of Clippers and other sailing ships of a bygone era. They race through waves propelled forward, always by a brilliant wind that fills the sails. Those are playful, happy, and exciting. Those are his peacetime works.
In his wartime works, however, we see dozens of scenes of the war at sea painted with a near achromatic color palette, meaning a palette without color – blacks and whites. During the First World War, Dawson enlisted in the British Royal Navy, serving on small ships like trawlers and minesweepers.
The war interrupted his new commercial art and illustration career, but during his service, he used his talents and precise technical knowledge of ships to document the war effort. Dawson’s career swelled in the years following the First World War – these were happy times again. Until they weren’t.
Serving in a Different Way
As the world was yet again gripped by war, Dawson served as a war artist in a different fashion. Many artists were hired to paint “impressions” of the war effort to aid in the dissemination of sensitive information to the public. With access to special facilities on naval bases, Dawson was able to paint these documentary works, which were printed in the illustrated magazine, The Sphere.
Because they would be published in black and white, it was practical for Montague Dawson to paint these scenes in black and white. But seeing these pieces today, the choice carries an ominous solemnity. One that was, no doubt, shared by the world in 1944.
Of all of the wartime works by Dawson that we are lucky enough to have in our Collection here at The Mariners’, I find this work exemplifies the effects of war more than any other.
Captioned “Wintry conditions in the Atlantic are only now drawing to a close,” it was published in The Sphere on May 6, 1944, illustrating an article on the intensely frigid winter in the North Atlantic. But beyond documenting challenging weather conditions that the fleet faced, this work captures the spirit of war. And looking at this work, I wonder if this scene would look much different if it were painted in color.
We can picture the dark, frigid water, the gray metal of the destroyer, and the bleak clouds of a wintry sky. The only semblance of color is the sickly light yellow underpainting that only serves to make the scene even eerier.
The Feeling of War
The ship rides low in the rough waves; it’s being battered by the sea. It groans under the weight of the ice that threatens to debilitate it. The shades of gray of the ship match those of the dark water so closely that they almost seem to become one.
The trickle of smoke from the stacks makes the struggling ship seem even more tired. From a distance, the scene is devoid of humanity. Just like so much with war, it would be easy to forget that this ship is not powered on its own but crewed by people. If we look closely, carefully, we can make out a few specks of paint – sailors.
Sailors who are freezing, tired, and desperate for the warmth and color of home. Sailors who feel what Dawson, too, had likely felt. Dehumanized by war. But still, they push on. Still, they stand watch on icy decks, endlessly serving in pursuit of the return of happy, colorful days. They continue patrolling for U-boats. Serving their country and their allies.
In times of strife, violence, and upheaval, not unlike those we live in today, it can feel like the color has been stripped from the world. Like we trudge forward, each news report a coating of ice that hardens our hearts and threatens to sink us. Like we are sailing forward into a darkness that seems hopeless, unsure of what tomorrow brings. But the beauty of the human spirit is its ability to carry on. To hold hope in our hearts and know that if we strive for what is good and right and we fight to help each other, one day, the color will return.
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