Monday, 16 April 2012

Swallows, Amazons and Squirrels

This week we went to see the Bristol Old Vic's touring production of Swallow and Amazons. The theatre show is based on the classic book by Arthur Ransome about four children who sail their ship called 'The Swallow' to an small island near the farm where they're staying. While camping on the island they encounter two fierce girl pirates, Nancy and Peggy, who call themselves 'The Amazons'. After a brief battle and a "Parlez", the Swallows and Amazons join forces to fight Captain Flint (really the girls' Uncle Jim, who lives on a houseboat). 

More than all of this though, it's about imagination, adventures and long summer days outside exploring and playing. 

Photographs by Simon Annand

The staging (by Robert Innes Hopkins who was also the designer on Goodnight Mister Tom) is brilliantly imaginative and atmsospheric, especially the Cormorant birds who seemed to be made from rusty garden shears with bin-bag wings. I'd love to have a photo of those, so I'll see if I they'll let me have one to share here.

The songs really got inside my head too (the score's written by Neil Hannon from the Divine Comedy), and I found myself singing "Swallows... and Amazon Pirates" all through the interval, which is never a good thing to hear, and understandably caused Kaspar (who's 11) much distress and shame.

I do feel a bit bade for saying this, but the Swallows were almost too Enid Blyton for me, slightly too full of saccharin goodness and dismay at the "beastly" Amazons, and I found myself rooting for the Amazons to pierce their goodie-two-shoe shoes with their arrows. Frankly, if it had been a whole show just with the Amazons, their feather-headdresses, Adam Ant face-paint and pirate songs, I would have been more than happy.

The Amazons were so brilliant I wanted to capture their spirit and bring it into the Butterscotch & Beesting Circus. I started to think about creating a new character who had their fearlessness and strength, and like the girl pirates, was totally undaunted by their size or age. 

So after going through various possible animals, and ruling out a meercat because the circus already has a 'Master'...

def. meercat, rabbit and rooster muddled together by monkey magic

... I decided on a squirrel - probably because we've got so many squirrels near us in the Botanical Gardens and they always strike me as being immensely agile and curiously unafraid of humans. And I knew the character definitely had to be a girl.

I had made some headdresses a while ago, so I used these as the starting point for the drawing...

Butterscotch & Beesting Feather Headdresses 

.. but to accentuate her fearlessness I extended the feathers like the ones the Amazons wore in the show. I think that also helps to heighten the drama a bit too. And, of course, she had to have their Adam Ant pirate stripes.

Tall feathers and pirate stripes

I find I can't draw a character until I know who they are, what they're like and, most importantly, their name. So before I put pencil to paper, I spent a while deciding on her name. As often tends to happen, her name was the first one that came to me: "Wild Wilhelmina".  Then I went round in circles for ages before realising I had it to start with. I really ought to learn. I think Wilhelmina suits her because it gives the nice alliteration with "wild", and it makes me think of a female version of "Buffalo Bill" (Bill →Will → William → Wilhelmina). Handily its origins also apparently lie in the German word for 'protector'.

I love the idea this squirrel with a big name and boundless bravery is actually really rather small, and lives in a world that's much bigger than her - one where she takes what she needs from it and isn't scared by anything it throws at her. To help illustrate this idea, I've given her an oversized spear, which she probably fashioned using an arrow head she won from an adversary.

Wild Wilhelmina

So here she is, feathers, stripes, arrows and attitude. Welcome to the circus, Wilhelmina.

And thanks to Swallows & Amazons for giving her to me ... and also for inspiring my children to spend yesterday dressed up as Amazons (even the 11 year old).

(Two of the three Butterscotch & Beesting Children against an 'Erie Basin' background seascape which I borrowed from

And for inspiring my two year old too.

PS. The Headdresses will be in my Etsy Shop in a snip of a pirate's eye, if you should want to recreate your own Amazon pirates or Wild Wilhelmina.

Butterscotch & Beesting Feathered Headdresses


  1. I loved the books and film of Swallows and Amazons.. Would like to go and see the theatre production too.
    Wild Wilhemina is fab. Great choice of character and name. Love the feathers!
    The Butterscotch and Beesting Children look very impressive, all dressed up in their Costumes.
    I think I might like to be a pirate. Hmmm...

  2. Yes, do do. Amazons Forever!

    I've been meaning to make an album on my Facebook page where everyone can post their own Magical Menagerie animal drawings. Maybe I should start one for dress-up-like-Wilhelmina pirate pictures too?

  3. My little ones would love this. We've just done the whole 'Secret Garden' thing so maybe I should move on to Swallows and Amazons - just in time for the Summer.

    Nina x

  4. Or do both? Amazons breach the wall of the Secret Garden...

  5. The headdresses have all sold out now, but I'm making some more and I'll list them in the shop as soon as they're ready. In the meantime, if you really need one and can't live without it, just let me know and I can make it however you'd like it.