I saw three ships come sailing in…
"A green swirl rising like an octopus’ tentacle from the Malin Sea to the North of Ireland is a phytoplanktonic bloom. 'Google it and be amazed!' promises Jane"
It was a dark and stormy night, and already you can picture a bearded pirate stumbling into a coastal inn, his gold earring glinting in the firelight, a ship tossing in the bay below.
Although the twenty-first century reality of piracy on the high seas is not to be taken lightly, across the country this Christmas children will be opening fancy dress costumes emblazoned with the skull and crossbones and swashbuckling with plastic swords.
The romanticism of the fictional pirate travelling the world on the waves is a concept we’ve all grown up with, influenced by JM Barrie’s Captain Hook crossing swords with Peter Pan high on a ship’s mast in a lagoon flanked by mermaids, and Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow’s perilous tangles with Davy Jones - both an idiom for the bottom of the sea awash with drowned sailors and shipwrecks, and a legendary pirate of the same name according to nautical folk-lore who roamed the seas on ‘The Flying Dutchman’, a feared ghost ship in search of souls.
It was the adventure novel Treasure Island, however, first published in the 1880s and telling the tales of buccaneers and buried gold, that introduced the skull and crossbones into popular perception. It is from this book that phrases such as ‘Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum’ and ‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest’ are drawn, along with the idea of gold and gems bursting from wooden chests on deserted tropical islands in Caribbean seas, accompanying secret treasure maps marked with an “X” and the archetypal Pirate Captain, a salty sea dog with peg-leg and parrot. Treasure Island is also the most frequently dramatized of all novels.
This winter, Oxford’s renowned Creation Theatre Company invite you to scramble on deck for an unforgettable voyage to Treasure Island with an original score full of sea shanties, swash buckling and sword fights as The North Wall in Summertown, former swimming pool turned theatre, become the bowels of a pirate ship for Christmas
With cutlasses and cannon fire on the high seas, Jim and Long John Silver are on the trail of pirate treasure, leading a crew of the scurviest sea dogs you ever saw. Following a battered old map, I’m assured they’ll find more than they bargained for over the horizon. “There’ll be danger, mystery and mutiny – not to mention the odd foam cannon ball being thrown from the audience!” laughs Creative Producer Lucy Askew.
Meanwhile, in the wild waters of Oxfordshire, Artweeks designer-maker Tony Davis loves to explore the boundary between what’s real and imagined. As a child he always drew maps of imagined places and now, as a bona fide grown-up, he has persuaded Ordnance Survey to allow him to adapt real maps into places from literature and what better place to start than Treasure Island, the first book ever to be printed with a map inside?
The Unstlanders of the Sheltand island of Unst claim it was their island that inspired R. L. Stevenson when he drew his own map for Treasure Island. The shape of the island and it’s bleakness sowed seeds of a treasure map into Steventson’s mind whilst he was visiting his father, who was building Muckle Flugga lighthouse. One hundred and thirty years later, Tony Davis is equally fascinated by the representation of fictional places using the symbols and iconography of our contemporary world. Assembling his Treasure Island from several Ordnance Survey Landranger maps, Tony removed all roads, buildings and other evidence of civilisation before adding wooded areas and place names from Treasure Island in sympathetic typography to seamlessly suggest that the mappers had been there and seen it all.
The ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ was a phrase coined in the 1890s referring to the period from the 1650s to the 1730s and includes a buccaneering period from 1650 to 1680, characterized by Anglo-French seamen based on Jamaica and Tortuga attacking Spanish colonies and shipping in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific.
While neither man nor beast can tame the sea, by the late nineteenth century when Treasure Island was published, the danger of the seas was somewhat tempered: since 1861 there has been a daily shipping forecast for British audiences, initially broadcast by telegraph and then by BBC radio. Issued by the UK’s Met Office, it is a short marine weather forecast, but to British ears is so much more than that. Its staccato delivery combined with the magical names of the sea areas and the concise lyrical descriptions of the weather conditions have a poetic appeal that reminds listeners of who the British are: islanders with a proud seafaring legacy. The broadcast always begins: “Attention all shipping!”
Eynsham artist Jane Tomlinson has recently painted the waters around the British coast combining her interest with maps, typography, nature and history, a rhapsody in blue and green that celebrates the factual beauty and stark poetry of the shipping forecast. A green swirl rising like an octopus’ tentacle from the Malin Sea to the North of Ireland is a phytoplanktonic bloom. “Google it and be amazed!” promises Jane.
“The shipping forecast,” she explains “seems etched into the very DNA of everyone in Britain. The more I talked to people about it as I have researched and painted, the more I discovered that is has an appeal way beyond what they are broadcast for – to save lives at sea.
“I have included all the shipping areas except Trafalgar (apologies to purists!) which is too far south to sensibly appear on a sheet of A1 paper, and in places you may spot a little touch of humour. The Beaufort scale, which appears bottom right is a measure of the intensity of wind speed and it’s quoted daily on the forecast.
I applaud the Met Office in their unfailing duty to compile this most British of institutions, and I see this shipping forecast as a prayer to remind us of our precarious position living on a small archipelago in the North Atlantic, and that we have no choice but to prepare for whatever the Great Meteorological Forces throw at us, summer and winter alike.”
This month, Creation Theatre Company present their version of Treasure Island at The North Wall. from 4 December 2015-9 January 2016. Visit creationtheatre.co.uk for more information or call Creation’s Box Office on 01865 766266 for tickets.
For more on Tony Davis whose series of imagined world maps include Oxford as Christminster from Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure and Chatsworth House as Jane Austen’s Pemberley, visit artmeetstony.com
And to see the story of Attention All Shipping and other art by Jane Tomlinson, visit janetomlinson.com
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