Illustrating ‘Moby-Dick’ – the Pequod and others

For some reason, even though I have read the novel multiple times, Melville’s description of the Pequod surprises me every time. I’ve seen so many pieces of historical nautical and whaling art that eventually the ships all seem to look rather similar. The same sort of planked sides, railings along the deck, lots of ropes and masts and so on. Honestly, this kind of imagery is now so common to most people that it’s not uncommon to see it on everything from beer bottle labels to tractor trailer trucks.

I think most readers come to the Pequod expecting just that same kind of beer bottle label, tractor trailer truck wooden sailing ship. Something they, in their mind’s eye, can see so clearly that the mere presence of a rather detailed description can seem a little surprising. It’s the nature of that description and those details though which always surprises me and ignites my imagination. For rather than a simple, dull whaling vessel, Melville describes the Pequod as “a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old fashioned claw-footed look about her.” Let that sink in for a moment. “Rather small, if anything…” Small! Given its central role in a story as massive, as epic, as Biblical in scope as Moby-Dick, who would imagine that the outer boundaries of this wooden island that becomes the sailors’ entire world would shrink to the size of a “rather small” ship for years on end?

Melville then goes on at length about her “antiquities” such as the bearded bows, the stiff Japanese masts standing up like the “spines of the three old kings of Cologne,” her ancient decodes wrinkled “like the pilgrim-worshiped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Beckett bled” and so on. But then it starts to get really interesting, and the Pequod begins to seem a thing of fantasy. Melville describes how Peleg has “built upon her original grotesqueness, and inlaid it, all over…” This Pequod is “appareled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor…a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.” Now let the mind slowly turn, imagining a machine built for the sole purpose of sailing the seas, battling whales, and rendering them into oil. Take this machine and inlay it with grotesque designs. Upon those inlays, set the bones of the very leviathans the machine has slain. A magnificent image should even now be forming in your mind.

Melville finished the description beautifully by describing how these same whale bones and teeth are not just grotesque, not simply design elements, and not even just trophies of the Pequod’s brutal hunts, but functional tools and devices themselves. The bulwarks are garnished “like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the Sperm Whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to.” And the all important tiller is “in one mass curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe.” The very jaw of a whale steers that same ship which hunts and destroys whales. The whole, beautiful, grotesque paragraph concludes with the line “A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.” Quite a description and a rather daunting task.

As always, when beginning an illustration, I simply unmoor my mind and let thoughts and images roll unbidden through it. Again, betraying my admittedly less-than-fine art background, my first thoughts were of the astonishing pen and ink art of Ian Miller, particularly his spot illustrations for the early mass market paperback edition of Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, the beautifully stylized comic art of Philippe Druillet, and, for some reason, the ship that Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon and Erekose sailed on in Michael Moorcock’s The Sailor on the Seas of Fate.

An aside here. When Daryl invited me to post on this blog, I was honored but nervous. After several posts, those feelings remain. I have been awed by the level of discourse and critical analysis evident in so much of this writing. At times I worry that these crude simple illustrations of mine as well as my own level of engagement with the novel and its themes seem pedestrian at best and immature at worst. And in this post, given my own comparison of the Pequod to a ship from a 1970s pulp fantasy novel series as literarily complex as Conan and, well, you can probably understand some of my nervousness. Nonetheless, one of the things which has sustained me through 274 pieces of art and counting has been an honest commitment to my own personal vision uncluttered by deconstruction or comparison to the greater body of Melville-related art. I’ll leave that part to the experts.

So with Miller, Druillet and Moorcock in mind, I began to craft my own Pequod. Again layering the images over an electrical diagram, I started with a ballpoint pen mostly because I wanted the color of the ship to stand out just a bit against the color of the background. I knew I would have a dismal time of it if I tried to keep things realistic, so I again threw all caution to the wind and drew the ship exactly as I saw it. I knew it would have planks and masts and decks and chains but the rest was up to me. I wanted my Pequod to seem savage, barbaric, exotic, and alive. An old, wily, hungry, jaded killer. Nothing about the Pequod seemed to me to be gentle, kind, or even necessarily noble. It was a creature of function, every line and every element had to contribute to creating an image of violence and predation. It had to be squat, rather ugly, yet still lethal and fearsome. Here’s what resulted…

Later I had the opportunity to expand on the details of the craft so I chose to rather elaborately highlight the strange sea beast skull that I had adorned the prow with…

Even though I’ve only been able to lavish this level of detail on the Pequod in two pieces, I have enjoyed the task of visualizing each of the ships described in the text so far. Here is the Goney…

…and here is the Town-Ho.

And I look forward to the Jeroboam, the Rose-Bud, the Bachelor, and of course the doomed Rachel. But those are stories for another day.

8 thoughts on “Illustrating ‘Moby-Dick’ – the Pequod and others

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston June 10, 2010 / 5:05 pm

    Not pedestrian at all, Matt. A highlight, in fact. It’s interesting to note that Melville wasn’t consistent in some of his descriptions of the Pequod. In some places it has a whale-jaw tiller; in others a wheel. In some places it has bunks; in others hammocks. Some have suggested that this is another bit of evidence of the multi-phase composition of the book — that is, that Melville started out with one story but then recast the thing, preserving some of the original stuff and glomming the new stuff on (rather, it occurs to me, in the way that the Pequod itself turns out to be decked ou).

  2. mattkish87 June 11, 2010 / 12:17 pm

    It wasn’t until I joined this group and began reading some of the posts and comments that I was even aware of the multi-phase composition of the book. I was always aware of some of these inconsistencies, but since the novel itself is so sprawling, such a mosaic of themes and events and images, I never put much thought into digging deeper. It’s fascinating, and I am wondering if you can point me in the direction of any books or articles that might go into this in more detail.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston June 11, 2010 / 4:23 pm

      Matt, I may write a post about the composition later. I’m sitting on an article entitled “The Two Moby-Dicks” by one George R. Stewart that makes the case. Haven’t had a chance to read the whole article yet, but I think it’s a pretty interesting notion that might make a good wrap-up post at the end. I was going to say that the Stewart article was hard to get my hands on, but then I remembered that you’re a librarian and can probably initiate an inter-library loan request yourself (I had a local librarian friend do this for me). A citation for you, then (it’s available via JSTOR): American Literature, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Jan., 1954), pp. 417-448

  3. Jeff Anderson June 11, 2010 / 1:21 pm

    Hey, Matt–I’ll take the liberty of speaking for all the other Zombies (commenters and front-pagers both) when I say, please don’t feel self-conscious about your work or your posts on our account. Personally, I don’t see crude or simple in your illustrations. I see a committed, self-consistent, highly imaginative engagement with a masterwork of art; your approach to the project, in eschewing faithful representation, gets at the spirit of the book in a way I hadn’t seen or thought of before, and I love it. I think stylization is a fresh and valuable method to look at such an intimidating mass of literature, to reduce it to a set of concerns that can be related to each other visually in ways that can get lost among all the words.

    So thanks, and please keep it up!

  4. Paul June 11, 2010 / 2:12 pm


    I consider myself an artist (although my style is light years away from yours) and the more of your project I see, the more I really like it. There’s something about the style you’ve chosen (and I’m thrilled that you keep up that style throughout) that I adore.

    It’s a great project and I can’t wait to see the finished project!

  5. Sarah June 13, 2010 / 11:51 am

    Matt, reading your post I realised that I had unintentionally ‘skimmed’ the description of the Pequod. I am grateful to have had another chance to appreciate the fantastic grotesquerie, both through your words and images. I followed up your post here with a visit to your own blog, and I am amazed and impressed by the diversity you have brought to your wonderful art.

    Looking at your illustrations in conjunction with the accompanying words provides an entertaining challenge in its own right. Looking forward to the rest.

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