Ian W. Toll gives us a palatable insight into the historical illustration book Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II by the late maritime visual artist Ian Marshall and historian Paul Kennedy. Here Toll discusses how the artist shed a full-color depiction of battle fleets during the Second World War.

While the paintings vividly capture the contrasting imagery of the dark times, Toll says the narrative Kennedy added to the book “does not meet the high standard of scholarship” compared to the historian’s previous work and that it “is poorly sourced and blemished by many errors.”

Through the colorful lens of a maritime artist

Marshall spent the remaining years of his life illustrating warships that dominated the seas during the Second World War. Using his watercolor brush, he painted a colorful depiction of the catastrophic era and the fates of the six major navies—Britain, France, America, Germany, Italy, and Japan—during the war (between 1936 and 1946) without overly romanticizing them. Through this, he was able to retell the dynamic story of sea warfare that would eventually impact the world and change the course of history forever.

“…you can almost whiff the salt breeze and hear the gulls,” Toll’s take on Marshall’s warship illustrations.

Unfortunately, his untimely death prompted historian and close friend Kennedy to expand his initial foreword contribution into a full-fledged narrative to supplement Marshall’s 53 illustrations.

Victory at Sea watercolor illustration by Ian Marshall
Six of the twenty-one original watercolors from the book illustrated by Ian Marshall are available for preview via the Russell Jinishian Gallery website. (Screenshot from J. Russell Jinishian Gallery)

Before hopping aboard the project, Kennedy had long established his career as a renowned historian, working as the A. J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History, Director of International Security Studies at Yale, and Distinguished Fellow of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy. His best known for his 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, where he tackles Washington’s defense and foreign policy circle.

Kennedy might have had the confidence to cover the operations in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, along with his detailed documentation of the British Royal Navy. But the historian’s lack of knowledge of the other five services seems to drag the rest of his contributions to Marshall’s book. Specifically, his narrative of the Pacific war. What took place in the Pacific was especially prominent in the history of the Second World War as it holds “the largest, most complex, most varied, most technologically sophisticated naval campaign of the war,” as Toll puts it.

Failure to paint the past using words

The rotted fruits in this history basket have inevitably infected the good ones that were enough to be “embarrassing but not fatal.” Common errors in the book include misnumbered fleets, mislocated ships, misidentified admirals, a mangled timeline of events, and mismatched island names.

Some of the erroneous narratives Toll highlighted in Kennedy’s narrative include the 1942 Guadalcanal and the Battle of New Guinea, which both contained, if not exaggerated, wrong historical accounts.

As mentioned, Kennedy’s take on the Atlantic and Mediterranean were better. However, since he cited old sources, some details in the narrative were outdated.

The confusing and esoteric maritime jargon is another challenge Kennedy found himself entangled.

Wikipedia, an unreliable source for academics

Toll wrapped up his review by asking what on earth happened during the writing and editing process of the book. As for someone respected as Kennedy, the reviewer cannot wrap his head around the former’s lapses.

“In his acknowledgments, he (Kennedy) names eight research assistants […] What on earth is going on in New Haven?” Toll exasperated.

The use of Wikipedia may or may not have contributed to this chaotic mess of a historical account. And while the online platform does not deserve such horrendous “disparagement,” anyone working on academic or research should already know how the site can be unreliable with tons of anonymous contributors lurking around it.

Nonetheless, the mistakes made in Victory at Sea do not entirely strip away that Kennedy is a remarkable professional historian with over 50 years of distinguished scholarship under his belt. Moreover, the book was first intended to be an art book.

Looking at the book from another perspective, Toll said that perhaps Kennedy wanted to pay homage to his friend and decided to reimage the book into maritime history at the last minute. “…in which case the reviewer is a rascal who deserves to feel ashamed of the criticism offered here,” he noted.

But, whatever Kennedy’s intentions were, as a veteran in the field, he should have understood the importance of historical facts and have taken time to re-evaluate his resources. After all, it’s all of this for the future generations to be correctly informed of the past and for the iconic men in history to be remembered.