Earl Thollander: ‘Mount Saint Helena has been my mountain for 40 years’
Our illustrator had to be familiar with Napa, that much
we knew - Stevenson’s vivid descriptions of the region would accept no less
than an intimate connection to the mountain he called home. A call we made from
our Florida headquarters to the Napa Chamber of Commerce in California proved to
be our serendipity.
We had called looking for the phone number of any local
art associations, but the helpful people at the Chamber went one better. Tony Kilgallin,
the Chamber’s writer-in-residence, assured us that Earl Thollander was our man.
Anyone else we should consider? No need, said Tony. Earl’s the one.
And he was. As prodigious an artist as Stevenson was a writer,
Earl had painted scenes of the Napa Valley for all kinds of canvases - books,
wine labels, posters, brochures, stationery. He also enjoyed a reputation as a leading
landscape and travel artist. But most important for Silverado, he possessed
an almost visceral connection to Stevenson’s mountain.
“Mount Saint Helena has been my mountain for about 40 years
now,” Earl told us. “I can see it from my studio.”
Earl’s studio and home are part of a 14-acre retreat in
the Napa Valley town of Calistoga that you may never find without a guide. Tucked
up into a back road off a back road, its leafy refuge harbors all “the singular
privacy and silence” of Stevenson’s Silverado days. Once there, in a California
far removed from fax machines let alone silicon, you are tempted to be a squatter
had often sketched his and Stevenson’s mountain when he
went hiking, so illustrating the book’s first chapter, which opens, “The scene of
this little book is on a high mountain,” was almost second nature. Living among
vineyards for nearly 40 years inspired the grapevine watercolor in the second chapter.
Earl patiently explained to us at Levenger, with our East Coast eyes, that young
and mature grapevines look quite different (it’s a young one in the book).
more gentle explanation was needed for the watercolor of the sea fogs. The fogs
of Napa are not the same as those of San Francisco, he told us; having lived in
San Francisco, Earl had experienced both.
“Working on that illustration reminded me that a few years
back I’d tried my hand at a poem about the fog Stevenson experienced,” Earl said.
“I was having a stay at the local hospital at the time, so I had plenty of time
to fool with words.” Here are those words he so deftly fooled with, published
for the first time:
Islands of Icy Green
Above the soft fringe
Of early morning fog
A hillock of firs
Is an island
Of icy green
The intricate needlework
Of treetop foliage.
Into the distance
Other dark ridges emerge
Ending in the faint
But powerful mass
Of Mount St. Helena.
Below, old red-roofed
Peeks through the trees
And hilly vineyards
Disappear in a misty haze.
It is a valley of opaque whiteness
With islands of icy green.
For the watercolors in the last two chapters, Earl visited
the Robert Louis Stevenson Silverado Museum a few miles from his home. Ed Reynolds,
the curator there and a most valuable friend to this book, helped him sift through
old sketches of the mine and the bunkhouse.
portrait by the stove, which graces the frontispiece of the book, was a special
addition Earl made for publisher Steve Leveen, who was much taken by Chuchu’s unending
quest for sofa cushions.
Curiously, for being so close to Stevenson’s sensibility
and his mountain, Earl had never before illustrated an edition of The Silverado Squatters.
“I would have if someone had asked me,” Earl said. “I’m partial to the book - always
have been. I read it when I first came to Calistoga in the ‘60s.
“I like the musicality of it,” Earl said of Silverado.
“It’s just a fine piece of writing.” And thanks to Earl, there’s some pretty stuff
in it, too.
Editor's Note: Earl Thollander died in August 2001, shortly
after completing his work for Silverado. This is the last of many books he illustrated,
a small part of a vast legacy he leaves.
Young: ‘It was exciting to put my two passions together - lettering and
We had known Mandy as a customer for several years. A professional
calligrapher, she had once tested and critiqued our
Levenger inks. We sent her some Pinkly as thanks. It was the exquisite hand-lettered
note she sent us in return that launched her work on
Silverado. Like Stevenson’s language, Mandy’s calligraphy was both delicate
and grand, meticulously crafted and executed with an exuberant flourish.
“Abject terror” is what Mandy will tell you was her first
reaction to the idea of lettering Silverado. But then: “I got swept up by
the language. Getting to know the text before lettering it was like going back to
college and doing critical reading again (which I always enjoyed). I had Post-it
Notes all over the place. I remember thinking, ‘May as well letter the whole book.’
” Silverado became an opportunity for Mandy to marry her two passions, literature
The Gothic Cursive hand that Mandy used for
Silverado dates back to the fifteenth century, and it proved an astute match
for Stevenson’s nineteenth-century prose. “His prose is so eloquently descriptive
and yet approachable to the common man. These are the quintessential characteristics
of Gothic Cursive as well,”Mandy explained.
“Gothic Cursive is elastic, expressive and yet accessible
in its legibility,” she added. “One name for it was the secretary hand because it
was used for keeping records. But you could also use it as your handwriting.”
In that good New England way, Mandy did refrain from lettering
the whole book (though we fully understood the temptation). Her favorite callout?
“I will forever think of Robert Louis Stevenson in conjunction with the blue hall