1878 - 1971
Big Steamers

Oil on board, signed bottom right
Inscribed on verso
Image size: 20 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches (52 x 80 cm)
Hand made gilt frame (Image below)
Price on Application


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This painting depicts a World War One Merchant ship at sea with two dreadnought battleships in the background.

This artwork by Norman Wilkinson was created to be included as an illustration in ‘Princess Mary’s Gift Book’, published in 1914. Her gift book, which contained a collection of children’s stories and illustrations by the leading authors and artists of the day, was published to raise funds for The Queen’s Work for Women Fund (a subsidiary of the National Relief Fund, which raised money for several military and civilian charities during the war years). The fund, which was set up in August 1914, was intended to initiate and subsidise projects for employing women who were out of work as a result of the war. An illustration of this painting (as shown below), along with three drawings by Wilkinson, accompanied a poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled ‘Big Steamers’.


Norman Wilkinson

Norman Wilkinson was a British artist in oil, watercolour and dry point, usually of marine subjects. An illustrator and poster artist, he also made an important contribution in both World Wars in the field of camouflage, namely dazzle camouflage.

Educated at Berkhamsted School and St Paul’s Cathedral choir school, he had little training in art but largely developed his style through his maritime career.

In 1898 he started contributing to The Illustrated London News and The Illustrated Mail which was the start of a long association. In Paris in 1899 he studied figure painting but was already intent upon working on marines. With his love of the sea he travelled extensively, including visits to Spain, Germany, Italy, Malta, Greece, Aden, Bahamas, United States, Canada, and Brazil. He was elected to the Royal Institute in 1906.

During World War I he served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and he was assigned to submarine patrols in the Dardanelle, the Mediterranean, Gallipoli, Gibraltar and beginning in 1917, to a minesweeping operation at HMNB Devonport in the English Channel.

During Wilkinson’s long life he was a contemporary of William Frith and he also played a notable part in both World Wars. In WWII he was an Honorary Air Commodore and Inspector of Camouflage.

One of his paintings that was commissioned, was on the Titanic when it sank.

In April 1917, German submarines (called U-boats) achieved unprecedented success in torpedo attacks on British ships, sinking nearly eight per day. In his autobiography, Wilkinson remembers the moment when, in a flash of insight, he arrived at what he thought would be a way to respond to the submarine threat (Wilkinson 1969, p. 79).

He decided that, since it was all but impossible to hide a ship on the ocean (if nothing else, the smoke from its smokestacks would give it away), a far more productive question would be: How can a ship be made to be more difficult to aim at from a distance through a periscope? In his own words, he decided that a ship should be painted “not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as to the course on which she was heading” (Wilkinson 1969, p. 79).

After initial testing, Wilkinson’s plan was adopted by the British Admiralty, and he was placed in charge of a naval camouflage unit, housed in basement studios at the Royal Academy of Arts. There, he and about two dozen associate artists and art students (camoufleurs, model makers, and construction plan preparators) devised dazzle camouflage schemes, applied them to miniature models, tested the models (using experienced sea observers), and prepared construction diagrams that were used by other artists at the docks (one of whom was Vorticist artist Edward Wadsworth) in painting the actual ships. In early 1918 Wilkinson was assigned to Washington, D.C. for a month, where he served as a consultant to the U.S. Navy, in connection with its establishment of a comparable unit (headed by Harold Van Buskirk, Everett Warner, and Loyd A. Jones)(Hartcup 1980; Behrens 2002, 2009; Wilkinson 1969).
After World War I, there was some contention about who had originated dazzle painting. When Wilkinson applied for credit to the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, he was challenged by several others. At the end of a legal procedure, he was formally declared the inventor and awarded monetary compensation (Wilkinson 1969, pp. 94–95).

As a poster designer, Wilkinson reached his highest artistic level. His posters were well-planned and executed in broad tones of colour with a skilful use of black to strengthen the design. He made his first poster (of the Irish steamer crossing from Holyhead to Dublin) in 1905. It was the first to illustrate the product as just one element of a broader landscape and its revolutionary design was a major influence in the development of the pictorial poster. Wilkinson went on to organise the celebrated commissioning of poster designs from members of the Royal Academy for the London Midland and Scottish Railway company in the 1920s. Through the dissemination of his posters to railway stations, schools, and government offices throughout the world, he became one of the most familiar artists in the British Empire.

He was elected Hon. Marine Painter to the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1919, P.R.I. in 1937. He was knighted in 1948 and appointed a CBE in 1948. Wilkinson created a painting titled “The Approach to Plymouth Harbour” for the smoking room of the RMS Titanic, which sank with the ship. Wilkinson was one of the finest marine painters of his time.
Prolific and long-lived, Norman Wilkinson led an active and adventurous life until his death in 1971.

A regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy, he was president of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours and a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters. His work can be found in many public and private collections listed below. He painted a record of the major sea battles of the Second World War and presented the series of 54 paintings to the nation; they are kept at the National Maritime Museum.

He produced his first poster in 1905 and brought the simplicity and truth to poster design. Nothing like it had been seen before. He said he was the “Father and Mother” of the artistic poster on English railway stations. He persuaded seventeen Royal Academy artists to design posters. He raised the status of the poster painter and the quality of the art poster.

Museums & Galleries
Royal Academy, Royal Society of British Artists, Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, Abbey Gallery, Royal Society of Artists, Birmingham, Beaux Arts Gallery, Imperial War Museum, National Maritime Museum, National Railway Museum and the Ulster Museum.

Wilkinson, N. (1969), “A Brush with Life”. London: Seeley Service.
Wilkinson, N. (1915) “The Dardanelles”, London