Ahoy, Har Be Some Thoughts About Ye Pirates, Shiver Me Timbers!

pirateopenerThe more I learn, the more I realize that what you know is connected in ways that are surprising and stimulating to think about.  This thought occurred to me recently when I learned something new about pirates. That’s right, pirates!

I am teaching the History of Illustration at Ringling College, which is a course I have never taught—or  even taken—before.  As a matter of fact, it is a course that you will likely not find outside of an art school. Most weeks I am knee deep in research on the eras and artists that were important in the evolution of illustration. I treat it as a popular art, meaning part of the material covers the impact of each era and artist on our culture and society, much like I teach film history. Prior to film and broadcast media, print and publishing held the public’s fascination, and illustrators were the stars of the publishing industry. Fans followed the work of prominent magazine, newspaper, and book illustrators, who were treated like celebrities.

Recently, I taught the work of Howard Pyle, who is often dubbed the Father of American Illustration, because he was the first important teacher of the art and craft of commercial draftsmanship. He opened his own unique school in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware, where students paid no tuition and stayed as long as they felt they needed to. In turn, many of the students became teachers, and Pyle’s style of illustration was passed on to a third generation of artists.

'THE FLYING DUTCHMAN' BY HOWARD PYLE

‘THE FLYING DUTCHMAN’ BY HOWARD PYLE

Successful, popular, and influential, Pyle was known for illustrating contemporary and classic adventure stories for novels and magazines. In the course of illustrations for Treasure Island, The Flying Dutchman, and other sea-faring adventures, he designed the archetypal costume for the pirate. Now a  part of the collective cultural consciousness, Pyle’s pirate’s costume, which consists of headscarf, long hair, gold earrings, balloon pants, sash, and billowing sleeves, is familiar to us from storybooks, movies, animated cartoons, and Halloween costumes. Pyle meticulously researched the details of his illustrations though not always for the sake of accuracy. He liked to mix the decorative details of different eras of history and then toss in a dash of imagination. To create the costume of his pirates, he combined the attire of the 16th-century sailor with clothing favored by gypsies. Of course, from a practical standpoint, anyone manning a ship would not wear long sashes, flouncy sleeves, or balloon pants, because they would get in the way. However, these articles of clothing helped to romanticize the pirate, transforming him from a rampaging thief into a rebellious non-conformist who flaunts rules, laws, and social mores.

TYRONE POWER IN 'THE BLACK SWAN'

TYRONE POWER IN ‘THE BLACK SWAN’ ROCKS THE TYPICAL PIRATE’S COSTUME.

Pyle’s version of the pirate was adopted and adapted by his students, such as N.C. Wyeth and Frank Schoonover, who in turn passed it on to their students. Hollywood costume designers cemented the iconic look, passing it from silent era films such as The Black Pirate to Golden Age classics like The Black Swan up through contemporary hits such as Pirates of the Caribbean. Gore Verbinski and costume designer Penny Rose openly acknowledged the influence of Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates on the Pirates of the Caribbean. The look is so thoroughly accepted as authentic that programs about pirates on the History Channel use it as a matter of course. Yet, no one knows how pirates actually dressed, and, considering that they came from different parts of the world, it is unlikely they would dress alike.

FROM DORE'S ILLUSTRATIONS FOR 'ANCIENT MARINER'

FROM DORE’S ILLUSTRATIONS FOR ‘ANCIENT MARINER’

With his creative team, director Gore Verbinski researched and referenced a variety of sources from classic film, literature, and art that came to bear on the narrative and visual design of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The films are rich in references, giving them a currency that the fourth in the series, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which was directed by Rob Marshall, did not have. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and POTC: At World’s End incorporated aspects of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the fabric of the narrative, including the visceral impact of slimy sea creatures as a form of punishment, a dice game to win the souls of men, navigating through a land of “frost and cold,” a ship stuck in the doldrums, and the entrapment of the main character in an existential hell.

A MODERN-DAY VERSION OF PYLE'S PIRATE

A MODERN-DAY VERSION OF PYLE’S PIRATE

At World’s End seemed to borrow heavily from illustrator Gustave Dore’s 1870 interpretation of the somber poem, especially in the mood and denseness of some of the imagery. Dore, one of the most popular and prolific illustrators of the Victorian era, specialized in interpretations of classic literature and the bible. His style relied on skillful draftsmanship and incorporated the use of deep shadows, detailed compositions, and eerie imagery. Dore represented the dark side of the Victorian era that romanticized death and embraced the macabre. Going a step farther, Verbinski and his team may have been inspired by an interpretation of Dore’s interpretation of Coleridge. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Lawrence Jordan used Dore’s engravings as the foundation for a version of the poem embellished with color and cut-out animation. Some of the caprice in Verbinski’s Pirates trilogy reminded me of the whimsical touch that  Jordan’s 1977 film added to Dore’s illustrations.

A DORE-LIKE SHOT FROM 'POTC: AT WORLD'S END'

A DORE-LIKE SHOT FROM ‘POTC: AT WORLD’S END’

Making the connections between Howard Pyle, Gustave Dore, and the movies reminded me that the archetypes, storylines, and imagery found in popular film often derive from rich visual and narrative traditions. When the references and sources are recognized, the viewer can fold the meaning of those sources into the film. In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean, the references to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner turns a movie series based on a theme-park ride into a meditation on regret and consequences over deeds long past (Davy Jones), and the adaptation of Pyle’s pirate archetype becomes a celebration of what that archetype represents—rebellion against the confines of the everyday world (Jack Sparrow).

16 Responses Ahoy, Har Be Some Thoughts About Ye Pirates, Shiver Me Timbers!
Posted By swac44 : March 4, 2013 3:30 pm

Funny how are perceptions of history are shaped by art. If Robin Hood existed, how would he have dressed? Probably not like Errol Flynn, but that’s the image our brains have been branded with. Part of me wonders how many pirates were ex-Navy men, and would they simply wear their old uniforms? I agree that flowing capes and sashes, and billowing pants would be out of place on a sailing vessel, but I could see how wearing a kerchief on your head would be practical, keeping the sun off it and preventing your hair (who gets a haircut while spending months at sea?) from getting tangled in the ropes. Ouch!

We’ll probably start discussing favourite pirate movies in this thread at some point, so I might as well start. The first one that comes to mind for me is High Wind in Jamaica, with great performances from Anthony Quinn and James Coburn, followed closely by Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate. Probably not historically accurate in any sense, but well-crafted entertainments with the kind of star performances you need to give them the right amount of gusto.

Posted By swac44 : March 4, 2013 3:30 pm

Funny how are perceptions of history are shaped by art. If Robin Hood existed, how would he have dressed? Probably not like Errol Flynn, but that’s the image our brains have been branded with. Part of me wonders how many pirates were ex-Navy men, and would they simply wear their old uniforms? I agree that flowing capes and sashes, and billowing pants would be out of place on a sailing vessel, but I could see how wearing a kerchief on your head would be practical, keeping the sun off it and preventing your hair (who gets a haircut while spending months at sea?) from getting tangled in the ropes. Ouch!

We’ll probably start discussing favourite pirate movies in this thread at some point, so I might as well start. The first one that comes to mind for me is High Wind in Jamaica, with great performances from Anthony Quinn and James Coburn, followed closely by Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate. Probably not historically accurate in any sense, but well-crafted entertainments with the kind of star performances you need to give them the right amount of gusto.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : March 4, 2013 7:40 pm

as a long time admirer of the turn of the century illustrators like Pyle and others,and also an aficionado of genuine pirate history,i can tell you that you are absolutely correct in assuming they didn’t dress in puffy shirts,bandanas,and scarves…but since their reign was so brief,and so far from their homelands in Europe,there really isn’t any record of their appearance except for some fanciful woodcuts,specifically Blackbeard with his tri-cornered hat,and braided beard,which he reportedly set on fire when boarding a vessel for the shock value…so it’s more than open for interpretation and a perfect example of imagination trumping reality…beside the fact,they look so cool in those puffy shirts and knee britches

Posted By DevlinCarnate : March 4, 2013 7:40 pm

as a long time admirer of the turn of the century illustrators like Pyle and others,and also an aficionado of genuine pirate history,i can tell you that you are absolutely correct in assuming they didn’t dress in puffy shirts,bandanas,and scarves…but since their reign was so brief,and so far from their homelands in Europe,there really isn’t any record of their appearance except for some fanciful woodcuts,specifically Blackbeard with his tri-cornered hat,and braided beard,which he reportedly set on fire when boarding a vessel for the shock value…so it’s more than open for interpretation and a perfect example of imagination trumping reality…beside the fact,they look so cool in those puffy shirts and knee britches

Posted By robbushblog : March 5, 2013 1:13 pm

Very interesting. I never even considered the impracticality of such attire on an actual sailing vessel. I always just took it for granted that pirates did and should dress like Robert Newton and Captain Hook.

I will add my favorite pirate movie into the mix: Treasure Island, with the aforementioned Robert Newton and little Bobby Driscoll. Second would be The Black Swan. Third would be the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The others stunk.

Posted By robbushblog : March 5, 2013 1:13 pm

Very interesting. I never even considered the impracticality of such attire on an actual sailing vessel. I always just took it for granted that pirates did and should dress like Robert Newton and Captain Hook.

I will add my favorite pirate movie into the mix: Treasure Island, with the aforementioned Robert Newton and little Bobby Driscoll. Second would be The Black Swan. Third would be the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The others stunk.

Posted By Doug : March 5, 2013 2:10 pm

What? No love for “Yellowbeard”? Just kidding.
I loved the Howard Pyle/ N.C. Wyeth illustrations in my childhood books-so clean and heroic.
I’m sure that there must have been a comedic costume party in a film where pirates were mistaken for gypsies and vice versa.

Posted By Doug : March 5, 2013 2:10 pm

What? No love for “Yellowbeard”? Just kidding.
I loved the Howard Pyle/ N.C. Wyeth illustrations in my childhood books-so clean and heroic.
I’m sure that there must have been a comedic costume party in a film where pirates were mistaken for gypsies and vice versa.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 6, 2013 11:02 am

Is that a N.C. Wyeth illustration at the top of your post? It looks like one to me. Great article and enjoyed it a lot. I hadn’t thought too much about what actual pirates would have worn aboard a ship, but the points you made caused me to remember that Seinfeld episode when Jerry wear that puffy shirt on the Today show. I believe it has since been placed in The Smithsonian.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 6, 2013 11:02 am

Is that a N.C. Wyeth illustration at the top of your post? It looks like one to me. Great article and enjoyed it a lot. I hadn’t thought too much about what actual pirates would have worn aboard a ship, but the points you made caused me to remember that Seinfeld episode when Jerry wear that puffy shirt on the Today show. I believe it has since been placed in The Smithsonian.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 6, 2013 4:41 pm

Jenni: The illustration at the top is another piece by Howard Pyle.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 6, 2013 4:41 pm

Jenni: The illustration at the top is another piece by Howard Pyle.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 6, 2013 4:45 pm

By the way, my favorite pirate movie is HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA, which is a lesser known entry in the genre. But, the story is told through the eyes of a little girl, rather than a boy. Interesting for a male-dominated genre. My second favorite is Verbinski’s PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN trilogy.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 6, 2013 4:45 pm

By the way, my favorite pirate movie is HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA, which is a lesser known entry in the genre. But, the story is told through the eyes of a little girl, rather than a boy. Interesting for a male-dominated genre. My second favorite is Verbinski’s PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN trilogy.

Posted By Mitch Farish : March 10, 2013 12:08 pm

As someone who knows a few things about pirates from reading history – not from Howard Pyle or N. C. Wyeth, or Michael Curtiz – I can say with a good deal of assurance that pirates dressed and talked pretty much as any other ordinary seaman in the merchant marine or navy. Having said that, I would be remiss if I didn’t state that many of the British seaman of the 17th and 18th century were from S. W. England and certainly spoke with that dialect – Ahrrrr! And since a sailor’s life was hard and hazardous there were certainly many eye-patched, kerchief-headed salts who would pass for fictional pirates in literature. If you’re wondering how a one-legged or hook-handed man could possibly perform a seaman’s duties, you’re correct. Don’t forget that Long John Silver was not a sailor but the ship’s cook. As for eccentricities such as parrots and monkeys on shoulders there was a thriving trade in such wildlife in the tropics, and many were no doubt owned by pirates as well as merchant sailors.

The movies, however, are another story; and I think I can state with an equal amount of assurance that Tyrone Power’s sideburns and mustache, and Johnny Depp’s Dreadlocks and beard are anachronisms, along with their whimsical clothing, that do not pass historical muster. What I don’t see in films are the loose, wide-legged breeches that sailors did wear in the 17th and 18th centuries. And just for the record, all shirts in the 18th century had a looseness that did include “poofy” (if you want to use the word) sleeves, although they certainly did not look like Seinfeld’s.

Posted By Mitch Farish : March 10, 2013 12:08 pm

As someone who knows a few things about pirates from reading history – not from Howard Pyle or N. C. Wyeth, or Michael Curtiz – I can say with a good deal of assurance that pirates dressed and talked pretty much as any other ordinary seaman in the merchant marine or navy. Having said that, I would be remiss if I didn’t state that many of the British seaman of the 17th and 18th century were from S. W. England and certainly spoke with that dialect – Ahrrrr! And since a sailor’s life was hard and hazardous there were certainly many eye-patched, kerchief-headed salts who would pass for fictional pirates in literature. If you’re wondering how a one-legged or hook-handed man could possibly perform a seaman’s duties, you’re correct. Don’t forget that Long John Silver was not a sailor but the ship’s cook. As for eccentricities such as parrots and monkeys on shoulders there was a thriving trade in such wildlife in the tropics, and many were no doubt owned by pirates as well as merchant sailors.

The movies, however, are another story; and I think I can state with an equal amount of assurance that Tyrone Power’s sideburns and mustache, and Johnny Depp’s Dreadlocks and beard are anachronisms, along with their whimsical clothing, that do not pass historical muster. What I don’t see in films are the loose, wide-legged breeches that sailors did wear in the 17th and 18th centuries. And just for the record, all shirts in the 18th century had a looseness that did include “poofy” (if you want to use the word) sleeves, although they certainly did not look like Seinfeld’s.

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