Surrealist who tried to paint a whole nation green

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'THE Home Guardsman may have many dangerous tasks to accomplish, but there is little doubt that, from his own point of view, the most dangerous thing he can carry about him is his own naked face."

So cautions the surrealist artist Roland Penrose in his Home Guard Manual of Camouflage, first published in 1941. The book, which contains information on how to conceal everything from pill boxes to weapon pits, goes on to detail various ways in which volunteers could hide their "raw, shiny, pink, urban faces" from a potential enemy. Cow dung is a favoured alternative - "highly recommended in spite of its unpleasantness, since it retains good colour and texture when dry".

Penrose was just one of a whole legion of artists, designers and architects employed in British Army camouflage units during the Second World War. Artists and Camouflage, an exhibition which opens at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh next week, concentrates on the role played by Penrose, graphic designer Ashley Havinden and landscape painter James McIntosh Patrick in this vital but often overlooked enterprise.

It's hard to believe now, but until relatively recently the armies of the world didn't bother with camouflage. It wasn't until 1848 that British units fighting in India and Afghanistan started ditching their traditional red "shoot me" uniforms in favour of khaki battledress. The Americans followed suit in 1902 and the Russians in 1908. The Italian army started using grigio-verde ("grey-green") in 1906 and the Germans adopted feldgrau ("field grey") in 1910.

When the First World War began, some nations were still sending their soldiers into battle wearing bold, bright colours. The French wore crimson trousers as part of their uniform until 1915, when they realised the error of their ways and adopted a more restrained colour scheme.

By the time a second major world conflict had started to seem inevitable, however, all the great powers were taking camouflage seriously. The French called upon their cubist painters to help them with designs, while the Germans made use of the expressionist Franz Marc, among others.

Like most of the British artists enlisted for camouflage work, Penrose, Havinden and McIntosh Patrick didn't have any prior military training, yet all three found themselves ideally equipped to deal with the demands of their new positions. Havinden was a commercial designer by trade. A protg of the sculptor Henry Moore, he joined advertising agents WS Crawford in 1922 as a 19-year-old trainee, and ran so many successful campaigns - notably for Chrysler in 1925 - that by the time war broke out he had been promoted to the post of art director.

After training at the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle, Surrey, in 1941, he was drafted into the Petroleum Warfare Department, and in the build-up to the Normandy Landings was involved with operation PLUTO (Pipeline Under The Ocean) which, as its name suggests, involved running oil pipelines beneath the English Channel in order to supply advancing Allied units. Stationed at Dungeness and on the Isle of White, where the fuel was stockpiled, Havinden not only had to camouflage the huge concrete storage tanks, he also had to conceal the pipelines and all evidence of construction work. These were key installations - one successful bombing raid from the Luftwaffe could have put the whole of Operation Overlord at risk. Secrecy was all.

"It was a logistical nightmare," says Anne Simpson, curator of Artists and Camouflage. "Some of the installations were dug into the ground and literally landscaped over - they put artificial trees on top. Others they disguised as bombed-out shops and village buildings. It was a real cloak-and-dagger operation. Havinden had a very flexible mind and he was used to adapting styles to clients, so this new job was right up his street."

McIntosh Patrick, a Dundonian, was already a landscape painter of some repute when he was drafted into the Tank Corps at the beginning of 1941. It wasn't long before his commanding officer got wind of his artistic flair, however, and had him transferred to Farnham Castle. He mainly focused on devising ways of camouflaging gun emplacements, but couldn't keep his love of landscape out of his work. His notebooks from this time contain numerous watercolours depicting well-hidden batteries set against painstakingly rendered backgrounds of broad lakes and rolling hills.

Penrose spent most of the war in Britain, lecturing Home Guard units on camouflage methods. His most significant contribution was his camouflage manual, which was widely circulated. It's a quirky little book, illustrated with the kind of flair for optical illusion you'd expect from a leading surrealist. It also makes much of the lessons to be learned from observing the way camouflage works in nature (there are two entire chapters devoted to the topic) and of the importance of concealment from the air.

"Being a surrealist, Penrose was tailor-made for the job," says Simpson. "He was used to looking at things from a different angle and making things seem what they're not."

Of the three men, he seemed to have the most fun exploring the possibilities of camouflage. On one occasion he tried out a new kind of matt green camo cream by persuading his lover and future wife, Lee Miller, to strip naked and cover herself in the stuff while they took tea with friends in a garden in Highgate. "My theory," he later wrote, "was that if it could hide such eye-catching attractions as hers, smaller, less seductive areas of skin would stand an even better chance of becoming invisible."

Inevitably, the advances in camouflage that took place during the Second World War were soon exploited by peacetime artists. Ian Hamilton Finlay, for example, continued to play with the idea for many years. The exhibition at the Dean will include a number of his camouflage studies, as well as Nude and Draped Nude - a diptych consisting of two battleships, one covered in camouflage netting, the other brazenly exposed.

The influence of camouflage can now be found in every area of the visual arts, from architecture to fashion to pop art. It has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that it's easy to forget its deadly serious origins. Penrose's manual, written at a time when the Germans were expected to invade at any moment, concludes with the sobering line: "Camouflage is no mystery and no joke. It is a matter of life and death - of victory and defeat." Then again, he did paint his girlfriend green.

• Artists and Camouflage is at the Dean Gallery, Edinburgh, 14 January until 2 April. Duncan Macmillan is away.