The Pirates' Return c.1940 signed 'NORMAN LINDSAY' lower left oil on canvas 68.0 x 101.0cm (26 3/4 x 39 3/4in).
PROVENANCE Bloomfield Galleries, Sydney Private collection Australian and European Paintings, Leonard Joel, Melbourne, 16 April 1996, lot 174 Private collection Australian and European Paintings, Christie's, Melbourne, 27 April 1999, lot 79 Private collection, Sydney
LITERATURE Lin Bloomfield, Norman Lindsay: Oil Painting 1889-1969, Odana Editions, Bungendore, New South Wales, 2006, pp. 142, 143 (illus.)
Pirates are among Norman Lindsay's favourite characters, the swashbuckling buccaneers being the ideal foil to his bête noire, the wowser. As with the libidinous old Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, and the gallant Royalist cavaliers, his adventurers are presented in idyllic situations, generously populated with buxom women in various stages of enticing undress and nakedness. There is a fruitful abundance in which pleasure is the highest good and the spoilsport is banned. Ever the romantic, pirates, their galleons and the high seas so fascinated Lindsay that he not only painted numerous oils and watercolours, and etched prints on the subject, but he also made model ships. The high-masted full sails of one such galleon can be seen in the right hand corner of our painting. Having brought them home, the cut-throats leave their ship for land to enjoy the pleasures of their of plunder, the more endowed the better.
Lindsay's public loved his pirate pictures. Writing to Melbourne journalist John Hetherington, Lindsay said:
The pirate is a colourful ruffian and I have frequently got good subjects out of his sacking of cities for plunder in gold and women. He also gives me shipboard scenes to paint which call for a good deal of technical knowledge of ship construction. Also, there is this peculiar appeal in the pirate as the scoundrel adventurer, risking his neck if the law catches up with him... I have never painted a piratical subject that has not been snatched up by buyers when exhibited. I am constantly asked to paint pirates. As I never take commissions, I only paint pirates when a composition suggests itself. 1 Such watercolours as Piracy 1927 and Ladies for Ransom c.1938 provide effective introductions to The Pirates' Return c.1940. The first is heavily laden with chests of treasure and those of ladies. The latter watercolour could be described as the moment of seizure of the plunder enjoyed in our oil painting. They share the central motif of the cavalier-styled pirate chief and voluptuous wench, pink-fleshed nudes appeal in profile to the left, while the right offers views bold and frontal. The chief difference of course is the transformation of lively struggle into embracing movement. The Pirates' Return is full of inviting narrative and incident.
The foreground provides a feast of foods and flesh. A tasty portion is fed to a young buck, while another favourite employs her fan to shade the light from the face of her hero. Like Mars and Venus of old, his warlike breastplate is cast aside, for omnia vincit amor. The cheeky play of light across figures and garments is allied to the action of the field. Aflame with desire, all have eyes only for each other. Nearby a blackbird feasts happily on a baked pie, recalling the subtleties of medieval feast days. Wine and women weave their magic across the picture's plane in mural-like splendour. Costumes evoke late seventeenth century England when the Restoration led by the merry monarchy of Charles II overthrew puritan gloom. In narrative and metaphor The Pirates' Return presents Norman Lindsay at his best.
1. Norman Lindsay undated; letter to John Hetherington, quoted in Lin Bloomfield, Norman Lindsay Watercolours 1897-1969, Odana editions, Bungendore, 2003, p.126