Monday, June 3, 2013

Pirates in Art

My education is in art history, and I love looking at how artist portray their subjects. Especially when they are not recording something that they have actually seen, but are imagining scenes from the past, or imagining something that may never have happened at all. Often it tells us more about the artist than the subject.

Pirates have been popular in art since the end of the 17th century, and because this coincides with the popularity of printing, we still have many of these images available to us. We will look first at some illustrations from The General History of Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson.

This book was first published in 1724, when some of the most famous pirates were still alive. In this illustration, however, we see Captain Bartholomew Roberts who had been executed for piracy in 1722. The illustrator probably did his work from descriptions, as Roberts was primarily active in the East Indies. Notice the general style of the piece – Captain Roberts wears  wig, fashionable hose with stockings and garters, and a neatly fastened coat, typical of his day. (We can count on the accuracy of pirate fashion here – the author and illustrator probably wore clothes just like these.)

Roberts’ might be a successful merchant captain, except for the cartridge case hanging in front of him, or the sword in his hand.  Behind him is pictured his ship, the Royal Fortune, depicted in both side and front views, as was typical of ship portraiture. (People who knew about these things gained a lot of information from these two views of the famous ship.) Behind Roberts and his ship are several other, smaller ships. Roberts, at his height of power commanded a small fleet, and the illustrator does him proper tribute.

We can contrast this with a picture of Calico Jack Rackham
from the same period. Rackham was active in
the Caribbean, and the illustrator had access to descriptions by people who had seen him, and might even have himself attended Rackham’s hanging. This is a portrait of a small-time pirate, not prettied up for consumption. Rackham’s nose is his most distinguishing feature, and he wears no wig or other emblems of respectability.

Also in the book are illustrations of Calico Jack’s famous crew members, Anne Bonney and Mary Read. Here the illustrator is faced with a problem. These were women who dressed as men. Mary, in fact, had lived most of her life disguised as a man, and was never caught until she chose to reveal her identity. How to reveal the gender of these pirates, while accurately showing their clothing?

In this case, both women are shown in male dress, but with female headgear. A decent woman in the 1720’s would never have gone outside without something covering her head, and these tiny lace “fichu” were in style at the time. I think this looks rather ridiculous, as I am quite certain that neither Ann nor Mary Read, who served in both the Royal Navy and the British Army before becoming a pirate, ever wore such a  thing in her life. But the illustrator was bound by the morals of his time, and also by what his audience would expect.

A few years later, in a Dutch edition of the book, this problem was solved in an entirely different manner. Here, a new artist takes literally an eyewitness account which says, “I only knew they were women by the bigness of their breasts.” He rips the ladies’ shirts open, gives them much more believable headgear, and places them both in exciting action- packed poses. Though sales of the English book, with the original, much more modest illustrations, were by this time foundering, the Dutch edition, with the new illustrations prominently displayed, was an instant best-seller.  Anne Bonny proved that Sex Sells.

Roughly 100 years later, the Victorians also pictured pirates. This woodcut by August Francois Biard dated 1861, shows a group of pirates attempting to lure an American ship within range before attacking. Dressed in workman's’ clothes, and national costumes from several nations, the pirates crouch and lie on the deck, straining to see and frantically shushing each other. The scene features a fiddler standing on tiptoe and, to the right an embracing “couple” with its female half played by a pirate with rather extravagant whiskers.  The piece is both tense and funny, an excellent work of pirate art.

The next work, a colored engraving, is perhaps my favorite piece of pirate art, due to the fact that everything in it is wrong. The sleeves on the carousing captain’s coat indicate that the artist is trying to portray an 18th century buccaneer, but his carefully trimmed facial hair is purely Victorian theater. Behind him his crew “carouses” by raising matched glassware in a hearty toast. There are (shock!) females with them, drinking strong spirits (the raised liquor glasses). So as not to shock the delicate eyes of his audience, the illustrator shows the women, not only in neat, tidy Victorian hairstyles, but perfectly corseted in the Victorian style as well!

But my favorite part of this picture is the wench between the captain’s knees. Not only is her position scandalous, but her hair (which to us seems carefully styled) is in the Victorian equivalent of complete disarray. She, also, is drinking strong liquor with her man, and her wanton nature is revealed, not only by the fact that her ankles (!) are sticking out, but by the blush on her cheeks! Real ladies didn’t have “passions” displayed in this way. Real ladies were fashionably pale. I’m sure the audience that this picture was intended for believed they were seeing the depths of depravity here, but the modern viewer giggles.

But it is Howard Pyle, originator of the so-called Brandywine School of illustration, who gave us our modern vision of pirates. Part of a larger movement of meticulous research for artwork, Pyle’s costumes, when he wants to outfit a pirate in coat and hat, are perfectly accurate.  But Pyle also realized many of the facts of pirate life – that pirating was a working-class job, that men who lived at sea and sailed for a living didn’t always have time to button their coats or keep their hems tidy. His pirates often wear torn, dirty clothing, and bits of foreign garb. (A contemporary of Henry Avery, describing Avery’s crew coming ashore said they were “dressed so strangely we did not know what to think of them.”)

 Furthermore, Pyle’s pirates are alive. They lean forward in anticipation as treasure is counted. They strain in effort as they fight. My favorite Pyle painting shows a band of men in a sailing canoe (a first ship for several historical pirates) coming up to attack a Spanish treasure galleon. We feel the tension by seeing the size difference – the canoe versus the towering, four-story galleon, which is bathed in a golden light to show what riches lie within.  These truly are desperate men, to try such a thing.
The images of pirates are always updated to speak to a current viewer. Today’s pirate picture is often a woman warrior. Scantily clad images range from not-safe-for-work male fantasies of female aggression and availability to female ideals of strong women who are not to be trifled with. The pirate, always a symbol of the forbidden, permits the female consumer of pirate art to see herself as all the things women are only now escaping from – the agreeable, neat, clean, nice, pretty (as opposed to beautiful) helper, the tireless uncomplaining worker, the one who’s never in charge, because that would be “bossy.”

Instead we have images of Women as Pirate Captain, as Pirate Queen. Grace O’Malley, the real-life Irish

leader has been revived, and Anne Bonny is as famous as ever. Once again, this time for slightly different reasons, pirate sex sells.


  1. Hello TS --
    hope you don't mind, but the "buccaneer" and his "wench" inspired me to write a poem for International Talk Like a Pirate Day. I hope you don't mind. There isn't much "pirate talk" in the poem, but I couldn't resist having some fun with the lusty (and somewhat sauced) couple.
    All the best -

  2. Guess it would help to give you the link to the poem:

  3. Wow. I'm honored. It's a good poem, too!

  4. Great looking site! I too have some pirate art to
    share with you folks: