The only Australian to win the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for illustration (1986), Robert Ingpen’s fifty year career as an illustrator is distinguished by his vision and craftsmanship, noteworthy for their sensitive interpretation of authorial intent in terms of character and psychology. Here, Robert Ingpen explains the thinking behind his characterisation of Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Robert Louis Stevenson carved a clearly marked pathway into the forest of our imaginative literature by creating Treasure Island well over one hundred years ago. In 2004 I was commissioned to illustrate an edition of Treasure Island by Palazzo Editions to be published in the United Kingdom by Templar. This book is part of a series devoted to unabridged editions of the great children’s classics. Its most recent titles are The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Around the World in Eighty Days.
In Treasure Island Stevenson created the pirate Long John Silver, one of the most enduring characters we have in our literature. Most people retain their own mental picture of this famous and feared pirate. Only a few illustrators are lucky enough to be given the challenge of creating their picture of him for others to see.
Stevenson introduces Long John Silver in chapter VIII. The setting is the Sign of the Spyglass tavern at Bristol Docks. Young hero Jim Hawkins recalls, ‘As I waited, a man came out of the side room, and, at a glance, I was sure it must be Long John. His left leg was cut off close to the hip, and under his left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with a wonderful dexterity, hopping about like a bird. He was very tall and strong with a face as big as a ham – plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling…’ Later in the narrative a fuller description of Long John emerges. Even so, as an illustrator I felt I needed more information beyond the text on how he should look as he acted out his energetic and mischievous actions to reach Treasure Island.
Long John is so surprisingly active for a one-legged man, adept with guns and swords (and a parrot) that I needed expert advice. I talked to a friend who is an orthopaedic surgeon in Geelong, near where I live in Australia. From his experience and suggestions I made these sketches that became the basis for my final watercolour illustration.
This illustration with Long John Silver resting on his crutch and looking to the left was later chosen to appear on the cover of another book Pictures Telling Stories – The Art of Robert Ingpen. The publisher needed the picture of the pirate to be facing the other way to help his cover design. So, to remain faithful to Stevenson’s description and obedient to the publisher, I made a new illustration so that the left leg, not the right, was missing.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, ill. Robert Ingpen is published by Templar (978 1 8401 1114 9) at £14.99 hbk