But in my research I discovered that the naturalist Peter Scott, a naval commander in WW2, had introduced a Thayer-like system of camouflage. He’d read Thayer as a boy, camouflaged his own ship in a freelance manner, and then convinced the Admiralty to adopt it as the Western Approaches colour scheme. The documentation was thin and I sought official confirmation in the National Archive and The Imperial War Museum archives.
Nothing could be found. Then I found a reference to a naval document – CB3098 – in David Williams’ Naval Camouflage 1914-1945. It seemed that the Admiralty had posthumously acknowledged Thayer after all. I had to get that report. But although the National Archives had the CB series, 3098 was missing.
As so often, the net came to the rescue. Bizarrely, it turned out that a Shropshire modellers’ cottage industry sold a facsimile of CB 3098 – The Camouflage of Ships at Sea – to enable modellers to paint their model ships in authentic colours.
The report did indeed vindicate Thayer. Given the crushing rejection he had received, the report’s conclusions are astonishing. How Thayer – long dead – would love to have heard these words: “…during the early part of the 1914-1918 war, a number of schemes for reducing the visibility of ships at sea were submitted to the Admiralty. …The soundest of these proposals, whose best points are incorporated in present-day camouflage practice, came from an American artist, Abbott H. Thayer, and from a British biologist, Professor (now Sir John) Graham Kerr; both based their arguments primarily on their observations of the concealing colouration of wild animals and the two sets of proposals were to some extent complementary.”
What could have caused this amazing volute face? The report goes on to say that Thayer and Kerr’s argument that “white is the tone for concealment on an evenly overcast grey day – has been thoroughly vindicated in the present war by the Western Approaches, the scheme of camouflage designed by Lt-Cdr. Peter Scott, MOB’S.., R.N.V.R.” The suggestion is that Scott’s inside knowledge of naval operations helped him to carry conviction where the outsiders had failed. The report notes of Thayer and Scott: “it is interesting that the two men who arrived independently of each other, and at an interval of 25 years, at this same unorthodox conclusion should both have brought to the solution of the problem the imagination of an artist and the eye of a practised observer of nature”.
Thayer’s odyssey was convoluted in the extreme, as was the research trail in his wake.