In recent posts, we’ve talked about the wonderful Russian fairy/folktale illustrators of the late 19th, early 20th centuries. We thought it might be fun, as we work on the sequel to Across the Doubtful Sea (Empire of the Isles) while editing The Good King’s Daughter for our second series, to continue the conversation by looking at other illustrators, beginning with two Americans, teacher and pupil Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth.
We begin, however, with a familiar contemporary image:
We think it goes without saying who this is, don’t you? He’s a wonderful actor, but, for someone who’s supposed to be dressed as a mid-18th-century sailor, he owes more to Howard Pyle, who, as has been pointed out more than once before, has exerted a strong influence upon Hollywood’s view of such people, than to actual 18th-century sailor’s dress.
Pirates were, in fact, sailors with, shall we say, non-mercantile goals. They were workmen and wore very practical workmen’s clothes, like those in the following 18th-century illustrations.
(This is, in fact, a contemporary illustration of the casting adrift of the notorious Captain Bligh, a British naval officer, although you see him only in his shirtsleeves here, rather than in his blue officer’s coat. His men, however, did not wear uniforms at this period, and, as you can see, would have looked like any other sailor.)
Okay, it might be argued, he’s “Captain” Jack Sparrow–what about officers? Here’s a Hogarth painting of a more-or-less mid-century civilian captain.
As the illustration shows, he simply wears ordinary clothing– no uniform.
Now, here are a few Pyle pictures.
Typical Pyle touches: the bandanas and the huge sashes, not to be seen in period illustrations.
One might argue that Pyle lacked readily-available visual sources: someone in the 1890s certainly didn’t have Google Images. It has been said, that, like Detaille in France, Pyle collected period uniforms, etc., and sometimes dressed up students in them, but, one has only to look at his illustration of Bunker Hill, to make you wonder what he actually collected.
There are numerous errors here, from the cut of the coats, to the lace on the breast, to the packs and that’s only the beginning. The study of the history of uniforms was, of course, only in its infancy in this period and even serious military artists, like H.A. Ogden, could go very wrong.
And yet, there are also Pyle illustrations like these, in which he seems to have gotten things– at least, non-piratical things–right.
In these, you see a depiction of 18th century sailors which looks much more like those in actual period illustrations.
So what was Pyle up to? Let’s look at a much more modern depiction of Bunker Hill, by the American military artist, H. Charles McBarron.
McBarron was a member of the Company of Military Historians and Collectors. He was well-known not only as a skilled artist, but as a thorough researcher, and the owner of an extensive collection of militaria of the past. What you see in this picture (minus the graphic depiction of violence) would have been as accurate a depiction of the event as anyone might imagine.
Suppose, however, you were attempting to picture this event in dramatic terms from the British side. You would want long lines of red-coated, determined men, marching steadily uphill through their own casualties, as in Pyle’s illustration.
Imagine, then, that even if you had much more visual information about pirates than Pyle may have had, but you wanted people to see pirates painted broadly and dramatically, what better than flowing headscarves, and big, blood-red sashes?
And this is why people in the past–and we in the present– love Pyle. Strict accuracy certainly has its place, but we’re perfectly willing to let it walk the plank in favor of romantic strokes and bold depictions.
And, as always, we ask you readers, what do you think?
Next, Pyle’s pupil, N.C. Wyeth.
Thanks for reading,