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A BEHIND-THE-BOOK LOOK AT THE ARTISTS OF SILVERADO

“I think my new book shall be good,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson of Silverado to Sidney Colvin, his literary mentor. And to his friend W. E. Henley: “there is some pretty stuff in it.” Pretty indeed - made all the more so in this edition by the artistry of Earl Thollander, who illustrated it, and Mandy Young, who lettered it. Finding these two artists, who lived at opposite ends of the country - he three miles from Silverado in California, she one mile from Walden Pond in Massachusetts - was part of the challenge and reward of publishing this edition of The Silverado Squatters.

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 forevermore.

Earl 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).


Even 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

Thrusting skyward
Above the soft fringe
Of early morning fog
A hillock of firs
Is an island
Of icy green
Edged with
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
Chabot Winery
Peeks through the trees
And hilly vineyards
Disappear in a misty haze.
It is a valley of opaque whiteness
With islands of icy green.

-May 1993

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.

Chuchu’s 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.




Mandy Young:  ‘It was exciting to put my two passions together - lettering and literature’

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 and lettering.

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 of heaven.”