The new display at the Beinecke sets out to prove that there is more to the legend of pirates than blood, guts, gore and the smoky face of Johnny Depp.
The two-month exhibition presents early depictions of pirates, from barbaric criminals to romanticized heroes, in the 18th century. Research consultant Lynda Paul MUS ’12, and former Beinecke Curatorial Assistant Patrick Kiley coordinated a collection that traces the evolving image of the pirate from various sources, including comic books, paintings, letters, sheet music and librettos.
“With pirates, popular culture and history meet,” Paul said. “There is more to pirates than entertainment.”
She said pirates are a fascinating topic of study because their popular representation has been entwined with historical accounts since the very beginning. As a result, she said, it is a challenge to filter historical fact from fiction.
Kiley said this makes the research all the more exciting. Since actual historical documentation is patchy and unreliable, the image of the pirate has been constructed from the very beginning by artists and sensational writers.
“Pirates in early silent films don’t look anything like Johnny Depp in the recent movies,” Kiley said.
In contrast to Depp’s shaggy, bad-ass portrayal, pirates were often romanticized, depicted as swarthy and majestic, dressed in rich fabrics of crimson from past centuries. They look like conquerors engaged in clandestine activity, with long swords and feathers on their hats. Along with romanticized depictions of criminals, pirates were incorporated in ballad operas and plays, Paul said, and by the 20th century, brutality was marginalized in representations of piracy like “Treasure Island” and “Pirates of Penzance.”
Pirates were then cast in a humorous light in the 1970s with their introduction into cartoons, Kiley said. Underground comic books by S. Clay Wilson show pirate characters involved in various obscene acts, and funnies by the Air Pirates illustrate Mickey Mouse characters committing piracy.
The collection also includes a painting of Blackbeard, a notorious English pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy who bears a haunting resemblance to Jack Sparrow in “The Pirates of the Caribbean.” Like Jack, Blackbeard was rumored to hang matches and beads in his beard to appear fiercer and bigger in combat, Kiley said.
While researching, Paul found illustrations of women who dressed as men in order to join a pirate gang. They wear baggy, dark clothes and cover their hair with loose hats. She said they often used pregnancy as an excuse to escape walking the plank.
Paul, Kiley and Associate Curator Timothy G. Young have worked for three months to assemble this collection, and Kiley said he could have found even more material with more time.
Although the Beinecke doesn’t have a specific collection of pirate paraphernalia, Young explained that depictions of pirates can be found in collections of western Americana, historical atlases, histories of commerce and finance, and even children’s books. In fact, he said, the pirate exhibition will be a model for future Beinecke exhibits organized around a single theme.
“You go and find a subject, and then find where that subject lives in all of the different libraries,” Young said.
For Paul, the entire project was a dream come true. She became passionate about pirates after reading a research paper and soon discovered the wealth of resources in Beinecke. Studying pirates exposes her to numerous local cultures as she follows their nomadic journeys.
And it is also possible to study contemporary pirates, she said, as they continue to plague the waters in mysterious ways.
“Pirates were larger than life from the beginning,” she said.