8. Wyeth's Pirates

Patrick Cox, H-NET President-Elect and Editor's picture


Contributor: Christine B. Podmaniczky

Curator, N.C. Wyeth Collection and Historic Properties

Brandywine River Museum of Art


The 17 paintings that the artist N. C. Wyeth created for the 1911 edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island have had a profound impact on the image and lore of the pirate throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. The pirates Wyeth laid on canvas to illustrate Treasure Island are now cultural icons, far removed from the pages on which they first appeared.

One of the most well-known and best loved of these paintings is All day he hung round the cove, or upon the cliffs, with a brass telescope, a “portrait” of the notorious Bill Bones whose mysterious arrival at the Admiral Benbow Inn begins Stevenson’s tale.  Wyeth’s Bill Bones stands resolutely on a cliff top, his figure wrapped within the bold shape of his billowing cape.  From the darkness of the cape emerges a massive hand gripping a brass spy glass; the outline of the cape is also punctuated by the pirate’s sheathed sword.  Wyeth gave Bones a florid face and red nose (too much grog?), a mouth taut with grim determination, and a furrowed brow.  We know he’s waiting, watching, in a life or death game and the drama is intense. The painting is a masterpiece of character study and coloration, and although the canvas itself measures an imposing 47 ¼ x 38 ¼ inches, let’s not forget that the image was popularized through a reproduction a mere 6 ½ x 5 ¼ inches in size.  Wyeth knew that the strength of his composition, the lure of his lush color and the compelling characterization would survive the process that translated the painting into a book illustration.   

Drawn from Wyeth’s own prodigious imaginative powers, Bill Bones is the archetype of the Wyeth pirate, demonstrating the artist’s unique ability to meld within a picture both realism and romanticism.  In this one painting, Wyeth conveys excitement, danger, and a sense of the pending adventure. From the first stage play of Treasure Island produced shortly after Wyeth’s edition appeared, to the cinematic fantasy of Disney’s Treasure Planet, Bill Bones has shaped the depiction of pirates ever since his creation.  When generations of young readers thought of pirates, they conjured a Wyeth pirate like Bill Bones. 


For more information on the specific painting, see the entry in the on-line N. C. Wyeth catalogue raisonné 




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