When I was young, there was an enchanting children’s programme on the television called ‘Captain Pugwash’. This swash-buckling pirate’s adventures first appeared as a black-and-white cartoon in Eagle magazine in 1950. I came across Pugwash much later as a black-and-white programme (colour television came later still, in 1970). Together with the inventive and clever cabin-boy Tom (on the left in the illustration below), and opposed by their sworn enemy Cut-Throat Jake, Pugwash (on the right below) had all manner of escapades on the high seas!
Last Tuesday at Ushaw College in County Durham I had a treat, because Isabel Ryan, the daughter of John Ryan – creator and illustrator of the Captain Pugwash stories – came to give a talk about her father’s work. She covered the making of the programmes, illustrated with photographs of her father’s illustrations, of his art studio and of the television studio where the stories were filmed.
All the elements in each scene were hand-drawn by John Ryan onto cardboard. Many parts were cut out and were manipulated by being pivoted on split-pin paper fasteners, using handles made of card. This produced a wonderfully lively, slightly jerky effect which seemed just perfect for the subject matter: think about galleons listing to and fro on the high seas and pirates’ cutlasses being waved! Even the mouths of the characters opened and shut by means of a cardboard lever. Sometimes as many as four people gathered around a single piece of artwork, all of them out of shot.
Isabel Ryan’s talk was a delight in itself, but she had also brought original artwork with her. She even allowed audience members to try using the cardboard levers to make the pieces move. Since the artwork was on an easel, everyone got to see how an A3-sized drawing came to life.
We saw the pirates’ sailing vessel and the tabs that allowed it to bob up and down on the waves.
There were some larger black-and-white drawings on the table too. John Ryan kept all the artwork carefully, so it could be re-used in later stories.
It took some time before books featuring Captain Pugwash were accepted for publication: The Bodley Head published the first one in 1957. This was the thirteenth publisher John Ryan had approached! Thank goodness he persisted; the books have given pleasure to myriads of children. Many Captain Pugwash books were published over the years following and John Ryan worked until he was 86. What I had not known previously was that John Ryan was also a cartoonist for the Catholic Herald – for 43 years – and that he also illustrated Bible stories for children. He created other characters too: Lettice Leefe, Harris Tweed and Mary, Mungo and Midge. My heart belongs to Captain Pugwash, however.
A particularly touching element of the talk was the reference to the hand-painted birthday cards that John Ryan made for his family, including for Isabel herself. She showed us one depicting the one-and-only Cut-Throat Jake. Hurrah!