Adventure can rely on character. Robert Lewis Stevenson demonstrates this in his classic novel Treasure Island. There’s plenty of adventure in Treasure Island: mysterious strangers arrive on stormy nights; innocent people survive savage attacks; abandoned ships drift out to sea; pirates climb the walls of forts under the cover of darkness to attack sleeping innocents; castaways, marooned for years, are rescued; fortunes are found and lost again.
But what the reader walks away from Treasure Island remembering is the books characters. Long John Silver is the best known, but there are plenty of others, pirates and non-pirates alike. It’s these characters that have kept readers coming back to Treasure Island generation after generation. They continue to frighten, to intrigue and to entertain.
The menace and magic of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s pirates are both captured by N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations. The elder Wyeth has been admired by illustrators for generations, and many consider his artwork for Treasure Island to be his best. I don’t know enough about the art of illustration to effectively judge N.C. Wyeth, but C.J. and I have developed a few standards in almost 15 years of shared museum going. One is do we believe the figures in the painting existed before the moment of the artwork and will they continue to exist afterwards. I think Wyeth’s do. His illustrations capture parts of a larger moment.
N.C. Wyeth is also a master of composition. Notice this group of three pirates climbing the walls of the fort. The viewer sees the two on the wall right away, but did you notice the third one who has already entered the fort’s shadow? And look at the angle of the mast and the yard arm in the illustration above. There is no steady, level place for Jim to hide in as he climbs the ship’s rigging to escape the pirate. Everything is sharp angles and dangerous slanted beams. The only solid right angle in the picture is the horizon off in the distance. Beyond that horizon, the safety of home.
I can see why N.C. Wyeth is considered one of the best. His illustrations create characters with lives outside the paintings just as a good author creates characters with lives outside the book they inhabit. Wyeth and Stevenson are wonderful together.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B, back in 2010. Since starting this new site, I have been slowly migrating all of my old reviews. I still have just over 150 to go.