‘How do the pirates spend Christmas?’

Young V&A
December 20, 2018

‘We hear it is something like this – ’

How do the pirates spend Christmas?

But what is this surreal vision, exactly? It is a child’s humorous ink and watercolour drawing of a pirate seated on an upturned bucket, playing Good King Wenceslas on the accordion. Below him are three pirate figures dancing a hornpipe, accompanied by one musician sat on an OXO box, drawn in ink and coloured pencils.

But there is more to this charming illustration than meets the eye. It is a page from Basil’s Own Magazine, a notebook filled with illustrations, stories and stuck-in published cartoons, created by John Paddy Carstairs (1910 – 1970) whilst he was a student at Repton School. It was given to John’s brother, Basil Keys (1917 – 2009), as a Christmas present in 1925. The watercolour was executed by a schoolmate of Carstairs, John Edward Leader Orpen, who signed the work ‘J.E.L.O.’. The magazine is on display in our exhibition, A Pirate’s Life for Me, where it can be found inside the Grim Grog Tavern. It shows how pirates have influenced children’s imagination for decades.

The magazine forms part of the Museum of Childhood’s archive of Carstairs’ childhood papers which, apart from this item, consists mainly of correspondence between him and his father whilst he was at school, as well as some separate stories and drawings.

John’s father, Nelson Keys (1886 – 1939), was a well-known comic actor. John’s birth name was actually Nelson John Keys, which he changed to John Paddy Carstairs (his mother’s maiden name) to avoid accusations of nepotism. In his adult life, Carstairs mostly made films – he directed thirty-seven movies between 1933 and 1962. He had made his first, The Hero of St Jim’s, in 1927 while at Repton.

John Paddy Carstairs: childhood papers ca. 1920s 2 files
Another festive illustration from Basil’s Own Magazine

John’s three brothers, Anthony, Basil and Roderick (1920 – 1976), also made careers in the film industry. Interestingly, Anthony (1911-1985) was a producer for two pirate films: The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964).

Many of John’s films were comedies. Flipping (carefully!) through the pages of Basil’s Own, looking at the funny pictures of elves, football teams and upper-class stereotypes, we can see a humorous young mind at play, as well as a budding artist.

Alongside his long career in the movies, Carstairs was a talented painter and successful novelist. After leaving school he studied at Slade School of Art and later exhibited his work throughout the UK. He retired from filmmaking in 1962 to concentrate on his artistry and writing.

John Paddy Carstairs and John Orpen thought pirates danced and sang at Christmas, but what do you think they do? Here’s what some people said…

‘Roast parrots?’ (Hannah, Senior Curator)

‘Use their loot to buy their parents lovely presents, and drink rum’ (Sophie, Exhibitions Manager)

‘They have a Christmas parrghhhty!’ (Lauren, Assistant Curator)

‘Presumably some are treading pantomime boards as Captain Hook, being terrified of crocodiles? And then some might be in the Pirates of Penzance. So, being theatrical.’ (Catherine, Learning Practitioner)

‘Ham night on Boxing Day!’ (Kirsty, Formal Learning Manager)

‘Have a rum punch-up?’ (Madeleine, Schools Officer)

‘Get drunk and swim in gold’ (Anonymous, Information Desk)

‘Deck the Hulls’ (Chloe, Activity Assistant)

‘Wish they were an arrchivist’ (Gary, Archivist, obviously)

‘Looking for Christmas treasure’ (Lucy, aged 4)

A Pirate’s Life for Me is open at the V&A Museum of Childhood until 22 April 2019.

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