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Margaret Mellis

(1914-2009) – ‘Dazzle’ boat relative

Margaret Mellis was the niece of Lieutenant-Commander Norman Wilkinson who led the ‘Dazzle’ painting campaign. British merchant vessels were painted in disruptive abstract patterns to confuse German U-boats. Mellis borrowed the idea during the Second World War to camouflage Hayle power station chimneys with designs by Ben Nicholson, herself and other artists.

Credit: Tate St Ives and Andrew Lambirth

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Who could imagine that the intersecting planes and swooping curves explored by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early 1910s would leave the easel and take to the seas as part of the war effort? And how could this development have any connection to Cornwall? This is the obscure story of how abstract art joined the First World War in 1917 and how its naval legacy intersects with West Penwith in the 1940s.

It was zoologist Graham Kerr who first put the idea of camouflaging naval vessels with disruptive patterns to Winston Churchill but, three years later, when German U-boats were causing significant losses of British merchant vessels, Lieutenant-Commander Norman Wilkinson was appointed to lead the 'Dazzle' painting campaign. Wilkinson, himself a renowned marine painter, was stationed in the basement of the Royal Academy of Arts where he engaged many resident artists (most of them women) to contribute designs and test models. At full size, each British 'Dazzle Ship' sported a unique scheme of contrasting garish colours and interlocking shapes and lines that would distort its form and pace enough to impede enemy targeting systems. Notably, the British avant-garde painter Edward Wadsworth supervised the patterning of more than 2,000 vessels. His post-war canvases such as Painting of Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool 1919 are a striking record of the project.

Wilkinson was seconded to the RAF during the Second World War when his niece, artist Margaret Mellis, was living in Carbis Bay, near St Ives, with her husband, writer Adrian Stokes. While entertaining a number of house guests taking refuge on the outbreak of the war, Mellis soon found she was engaged in a camouflage project of her own.

As the four chimneys of Hayle power station stood proud against the landscape across the bay from the house, sculptor Barbara Hepworth suggested they all propose plans, based on Wilkinson's strategy, to disguise it. Mellis and Stokes, along with painters Ben Nicholson and William Coldstream, took a chimney each and Mellis, the youngest of the company, was elected to paint them. With only one inch of the design equating to the distance of her outstretched arms, her terrifying account of high winds and burnt knees in a precarious rope cradle certainly suggests something of her tenacious character.  

Credit: Tate St Ives and Andrew Lambirth