Roland Penrose, ‘camouflage evangelist’

‘The tendency in warfare up to very recent times,’ wrote Roland Penrose in his 1941 book The Home Guard Manual of Camouflage, ‘has been to rely on sheer strength and even ostentation rather than concealment.’

Be it the shining armour of medieval knights, the scarlet coats and prominent headgear of Napoleonic troops, or even ancient fortresses with forbidding defences – all were considered intimidating enough to defeat an enemy perhaps without the need for violence.

ABOVE & BELOW: Members of the Home Guard in disguise at Osterley Park Training School in west London, 1940. This was where Penrose taught camouflage lessons to trainee soldiers.

But the savagery of the trenches, Penrose reflected wistfully, forced soldiers to give up their ‘red coats and plumes’ for uniforms that were easier to obscure. Although he admitted ostentation still had its uses – ‘as a peace-time method of upholding the prestige of governments’ – it was concealment that was now ‘the order of the day’.

Yet Penrose, an artist who was friends with Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst, and who was a conscientious objector in the First World War, was a ‘camouflage evangelist’, determined to persuade the powers that be of its many military uses.

Penrose’s teachings were published as a War Office manual in 1941. This illustration from its pages shows ways in which snipers could disguise themselves through a combination of nets and overcoats.

On the outbreak of a second global conflict in 1939, Penrose taught camouflage at the Home Guard training centre in Osterley Park, west London. The manual that came out of his lessons has now been reissued, for the first time, to accompany a new exhibition on his work at Farleys House and Gallery in East Sussex.

As this further illustration shows, the natural world had many lessons to offer when it came to camouflage. Given the right background, a zebra in the wild is rendered almost completely invisible.

It was here that Penrose lived with his second wife, the famous photographer and model Lee Miller. She was often roped into his training sessions, posing for pictures entirely nude but for some green paint and well-placed raffia. The pictures were used, it was later said, to keep his audiences ‘engaged’.

The manual is more scholarly in its approach, reflecting two of Penrose’s great interests. The first was surrealism, which, with its emphasis on patterns, textures, and shading, proved highly instructive for the making of a good disguise.

In a modern war, it was not only soldiers who were to be disguised – but vehicles too. In this picture, a car at Osterley Park has been camouflaged, although perhaps not entirely effectively.

The second was the natural world, in which Penrose recognised camouflage as a multi-species phenomenon. Zebras, frogs, grasshoppers, and even mackerel could provide ‘not only admirable examples of concealment,’ he wrote, ‘but also many ideas in the use of bluff and deception.’

Ultimately, Penrose believed in being resourceful, of employing ‘ingenious improvisation’ when in the field. Although this may sometimes have had slightly comic results, with men draped in branches, leaves, and foliage like extras from Dad’s Army, for Penrose it was always a serious business.

‘Camouflage is no mystery and no joke,’ he concluded. ‘It is a matter of life and death – of victory or defeat.’

Go further

The Home Guard Manual of Camouflage by Roland Penrose (£12.95) is available from all good bookshops.

The exhibition Camouflage is at Farleys House and Gallery (Muddles Green, East Sussex, BN8 6HW) until 23 October 2022. Entry is £10. For more information, please visit www.farleyshouseandgallery.co.uk.
All images: © Lee Miller Archives, England 2022. All rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk.