02 Aug 2016

Curator of Art, Melanie Vandenbrouck looks at playful portrayals of pirates in our collection.

If pirates have been wreaking havoc on seas around the world for as long as we can remember, they’ve also been portrayed in popular culture in romanticised or even playful and affectionate ways. Fictions and plays about swashbuckling, often dashing pirates, abounded in the 19th century.  Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ premiered in December 1879, and remains one of the most popular in the English language. Set in Cornwall in Victorian times, it tells the adventures of the love-struck Frederic, who is indentured to a group of comically useless and tender-hearted pirates. This operetta explores the timeless themes of courage, duty and honour, as well as being a social commentary of its times. 
Richard Temple as the Pirate King in the first London production of The Pirates of Penzance
In May-June 2015, British film director Mike Leigh directed ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ at the English National Opera. His production delightfully expressed the jolly topsy turvydom of the operetta. Singing along to Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous tunes, the audience was equally thrilled by the swagger of moustachioed pirates, the mind-boggling tongue-twisters, the light-hearted dancing and prancing, and the breath-taking singing marathon that is I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General, awesomely performed by Andrew Shore.
The director’s son, Toby Leigh, designed the production’s poster, which he kindly presented to the Museum. With its block colours, cartoon quality and visual wit, it gives a sense of the larger-than-life, buoyant and flamboyant pirates Mike Leigh imagined for his production, but also evokes designer Alison Chitty’s striking décor characterised by geometry, primary colours and the sense of a world being turned upside down. 
Poster for the Pirates of Penzance at the English National Opera