Buccaneers #1

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“For all the world I was led like a dancing bear” by NC Wyeth (1911).

This year’s reading began with a desire to explore some of the Robert Louis Stevenson volumes in my collection which I’ve so far neglected. At the moment I’m thinking of maybe reading everything I have by RLS, having begun with a return journey to Treasure Island, a book which seems to improve every time I revisit it. Setting out with Stevenson’s pirate tale was partly a result of having watched all three Pirates of the Caribbean films over Christmas, a series I’m probably in the minority in enjoying wholeheartedly, flaws, preposterousness and all. Much as I’d like to see a fourth film (there’s a hint of a sequel at the end), I’d prefer the makers to leave things be. The three films taken together can be watched as a single nine-hour ramble across the high seas and the tidy conclusion would be better left as it is.

My pocket-sized copy of Treasure Island from the Tusitala edition of Stevenson’s collected works is fine apart from the very small and poorly-printed map, something to which the reader is compelled to refer as we follow Jim Hawkins on his journey around the island. Happily the web provides many examples which can be printed out for viewing while reading. The web is also a resource for some of the numerous illustrated editions of the novel. The version by American illustrator NC Wyeth is one of the more well-known and more successful and his Long John Silver is a suitably powerful figure. Wyeth’s depiction of Billy Bones waiting on the cliff top was featured in a set of US stamps in 2001. The Internet Archive has scans of the Wyeth book (and a version with illustrations by Louis Rhead) although one of these, with better scans of Wyeth’s paintings, has some of the plates missing.

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Long John Silver by Mervyn Peake (1949).

Far stranger—weirder, even—is Mervyn Peake’s Long John Silver, seen here on the cover of a more recent edition. Peake’s illustrations are probably my favourites but then I’m biased towards Peake as an author and illustrator so the preference is unavoidable. Even so, his depiction of Israel Hands brings to the fore the malevolent duplicity of that character in a way I’ve not seen any other illustrator attempt. It’s a shame the Peake site doesn’t have another of the artist’s renderings of Silver showing the sea cook posed on his single leg in an attitude more like a ballet dancer than a pirate. That drawing and his ogre-like Blind Pew show how original Peake could be as an illustrator. And lets not forget his own pirate creation, also his first book, Captain Slaughterboard.

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It’s asking too much but it’s a shame that Walt Disney couldn’t have taken a look at Peake’s drawings instead of diluting Stevenson’s cunning buccaneer into the gurning caricature portrayed by Robert Newton in 1950. The less said about Byron Haskin’s film (and its sequels), the better. It has its moments visually but Newton’s portrayal has blighted all those that follow (Geoffrey Rush tips the hat in the Pirates films) and is single-handedly responsible for all subsequent pirate clichés.

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Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean, on the other hand, could almost have been designed specifically to please me alone, looking like the offspring of some unwholesome ménage between Long John Silver and the Great God Cthulhu. For the time being Davy Jones is probably my favourite screen villain, his tentacled face—and the fishy caste of his crew—is a wonder to behold. God knows what Stevenson would have made of this transfiguring of his creation but it suits me fine.

More buccaneers tomorrow.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Mervyn Peake in Lilliput
Stevenson and the dynamiters
Howard Pyle’s pirates
Druillet meets Hodgson
Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys
Davy Jones

Mermaids

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The Mermaid by Howard Pyle (1910).

A print of Howard Pyle’s wonderful mermaid painting adorns my bathroom and after looking at the Delaware Art Gallery page I’m surprised to discover that it was left unfinished. The Delaware gallery has more of Pyle’s work including his strikingly sparse pirate painting Marooned, which appeared on the cover of the Hal Willner compilation Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys, in 2006.

Mermaids are a popular thing on the web, of course, with several picture galleries of varying quality available, from prime Victorian to gaudy contemporary; needless to say, I prefer the former. All of which begs the obvious question: where are the mermen?

Previously on { feuilleton }
Octopulps
Howard Pyle’s pirates
The Masks of Medusa
Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys

Howard Pyle’s pirates

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The Buccaneer was a Picturesque Fellow by Howard Pyle (1905).

Seeing as how Johnny Depp and co. are sailing the Spanish Main once more (to mixed reviews, unfortunately), now is perhaps a suitable moment to note the genesis of our popular conception of buccaneers. The famous characters of the Wild West were being mythologised while many of them were still alive and some survived long enough to be consulted by filmmakers such as John Ford when the first of the silent Westerns were being made. Pirates had their exploits recounted in tabloid fashion via books like The Newgate Calendar but our romantic image of the pirate comes primarily from Robert Louis Stevenson and artist/writer Howard Pyle (1853–1911).

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Keith Richards by Paul Karslake (1998).

Pyle’s articles for Harper’s Monthly Magazine in the early 1900s were later collected as the very popular Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, “Fiction, Fact & Fancy concerning the Buccaneers & Marooners of the Spanish Main”. The considerable gulf between fact and fiction can be see in early pirate portraits, most of which are crude woodcut renderings. Pyle ignored these for the most part, relying on imagination to exaggerate details of worn-out 18th century clothing in much the same way that Sergio Leone and others exaggerated certain qualities of 19th century garb for their Westerns, turning what would have been a rather sorry reality into something more visually thrilling. Hollywood costume designers have used Pyle’s paintings as source material for pirate characters ever since so it’s perhaps fitting that Johnny Depp’s conception of Jack Sparrow’s character also came from a painting, Paul Karslake’s portrait of Keith Richards posing as a pirate. And now Richards is in the latest film playing Sparrow’s father…

Howard Pyle at 100 Years of Illustration
A Pyle pirate gallery

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Coming soon: Sea Monsters and Cannibals!
Seamen in great distress eat one another
Druillet meets Hodgson
Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys
Davy Jones

Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys

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The great Hal Willner is doing his eclectic thing again. A marvellous collection of folk ballads. Nice cover as well, from Howard Pyle’s celebrated pirate paintings.

Disc: 1
1. Cape Cod Girls—Baby Gramps
2. Mingulay Boat Song—Richard Thompson
3. My Son John—John C. Reilly
4. Fire Down Below—Nick Cave
5. Turkish Revelry—Loudon Wainwright III
6. Bully In The Alley—The Old Prunes
7. The Cruel Ship’s Captain—Bryan Ferry
8. Dead Horse—Robin Holcomb
9. Spanish Ladies—Bill Frisell
10. High Barbary—Joseph Arthur
11. Haul Away Joe—Mark Anthony Thompson
12. Dan Dan—David Thomas
13. Blood Red Roses—Sting
14. Sally Brown—Teddy Thompson
15. Lowlands Away—Rufus Wainwright & Kate McGarrigle
16. Baltimore Whores—Gavin Friday
17. Rolling Sea—Eliza McCarthy
18. Haul On The Bowline—Bob Neuwirth
19. Dying Sailor to His Shipmates—Bono
20. Bonnie Portmore—Lucinda Williams
21. The Mermaid—Martin Carthy & the UK Group
22. Shenandoah—Richard Greene & Jack Shit
23. The Cry Of Man—Mary Margaret O’Hara

Disc: 2
1. Boney—Jack Shit
2. Good Ship Venus—Loudon Wainwright III
3. Long Time Ago—White Magic
4. Pinery Boy—Nick Cave
5. Lowlands Low—Bryan Ferry w/Antony
6. One Spring Morning—Akron/Family
7. Hog Eye Man—Martin Carthy & Family
8. The Fiddler/A Drop Of Nelson’s Blood—Ricky Jay & Richard Greene
9. Caroline and Her Young Sailor Bold—Andrea Corr
10. Fathom The Bowl—John C. Reilly
11. Drunken Sailor—Dave Thomas
12. Farewell Nancy—Ed Harcourt
13. Hanging Johnny—Stan Ridgway
14. Old Man of The Sea—Baby Gramps
15. Greenland Whale Fisheries—Van Dyke Parks
16. Shallow Brown—Sting
17. The Grey Funnel Line—Jolie Holland
18. A Drop of Nelson’s Blood—Jarvis Cocker
19. Leave Her Johnny—Lou Reed
20. Little Boy Billy—Ralph Steadman

Previously on { feuilleton }
The music of The Wicker Man
Davy Jones