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Tolkien and the Illustrations of Robert J. Lee

Tolkien (misc.)Posted by Morgan Thomsen Tue, July 31, 2012 21:09:52

[Updates (10 September 2012): Douglas A. Anderson has noted some additional information and corrections about Robert J. Lee's illustrations over at his blog "Tolkien and Fantasy". (23 October 2013): Some additional images and notes can be found at MyTolkienBooks.com.]

In January 1967, Tolkien’s secretary Joy Hill sent him a copy of The Children’s Treasury of Literature (edited by Bryna and Louis Untermeyer, first published in 1966 by Paul Hamlyn), which includes the chapter “An Unexpected Party” from The Hobbit. The chapter as published in The Children’s Treasury of Literature (appearing on pp. 463–86, with an editors’ introduction on p. 462) features 18 illustrations by Robert J. Lee (1921–1994): 4 in full colour, and 14 in monochrome or duotone.

On 5 January 1967, Tolkien wrote to Hill, describing his reception of the anthology: “I think a great many of the illustrations are very good, including some of the modern ones. Illustrations to The Hobbit extract seem to me worst of all, vulgar, stupid, and entirely out of keeping with the text which Robert J. Lee does not seem to have read with any care” (Reader’s Guide, pp. 421–2).

I bought a copy of the anthology about a week ago, and below I will identify all of Lee’s illustrations for the chapter from The Hobbit. I have also provided a scan of three illustrations, and I will finally offer a brief analysis.

1. Duotone illustration in blue and black (p. 462), depicting Bilbo, Gandalf, three dwarves, Smaug, and two goblins.

2. Full-colour illustration (p. 463), depicting Bilbo outside his house.

3. Monochrome illustration (p. 464), depicting Belladona Took.

4. Monochrome illustration (p. 465), depicting Gandalf.

5. Full-colour illustration (pp. 466–7), depicting Bilbo and Gandalf outside Bag End.

6. Monochrome illustration (pp. 468–9), depicting Bilbo and ?Dwalin.

7. Full-colour illustration (pp. 470–1), depicting four dwarves eating and drinking at Bilbo’s table.

8. Duotone illustration in blue and black (p. 472), depicting an angry Bilbo rushing towards his door.

9. Duotone illustration in blue and black (p. 473), depicting Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, and Thorin.

10. Full-colour illustration (p. 474), depicting two dwarves balancing columns of plates, with a worried Bilbo in the background.

11. Duotone illustration in yellow and black (p. 477), depicting four dwarves playing music on their instruments. From left to right: a dwarf (Dwalin or Balin) with a viol, Bombur with a drum, a dwarf (Dori, Nori, or Ori) with a flute, and Thorin with his harp.

12. Monochrome illustration (p. 479), depicting Bullroarer Took on his horse, knocking goblins with a wooden club.

13. Monochrome illustration (p. 480), depicting Gandalf reading Thror's Map, in the light of a lamp, with four dwarves in the background.

14. Monochrome illustration (p. 481), depicting the head of Smaug protruding behind a hill.

15. Monochrome illustration (p. 482), depicting a dwarf having found gold and jewels.

16. Monochrome illustration (p. 483), depicting a flying Smaug.

17. Monochrome illustration (p. 484), depicting Smaug wreaking havoc on Dale.

18. Duotone illustration in blue and black (p. 486), depicting three dwarves sleeping on pieces of Bilbo’s furniture.

As can be seen in the illustrations collected in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator and The Art of The Hobbit, Tolkien preferred to draw landscapes (especially in his pictures for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings); there are very few actual portraits, and when people occasionally appear in a landscape, they are often very small and in the background. Meanwhile Robert Lee focuses on the characters in his illustrations for “An Unexpected Party”; at best the sense of an environment is peripheral and serves only to highlight the actions of the characters.

Tolkien’s dislike of the work of the Disney Studio is well documented, and maybe the comical style of Lee’s illustrations was off-putting to Tolkien. In comparison, the illustrations of Tolkien’s favourite artist, Pauline Baynes, showed an elegant style, often inspired by “medieval manuscript illuminations” (Reader's Guide, p. 76).

Another source of disapprovement was perhaps Lee’s use of colour. In describing a hobbit to his American publisher, Tolkien wrote ”Clothing: green velvet breeches; red or yellow waistcoat; brown or green jacket; gold (or brass) buttons; a dark green hood and cloak” (The Art of The Hobbit, p. 140). These earth tones are naturally in stark contrast to Lee’s 1960s psychedelic colours: saturated shades of pink, violet, orange and blue (e.g., see illustration nr. 10).

These differences may point to reasons why Tolkien found Lee’s illustrations to be “vulgar” and “stupid”. However, I would personally say that the remark about the illustrations being “out of keeping with the text” to be too harsh. Lee’s close reading can perhaps most clearly bee seen in illustration nr. 5. Bilbo’s feet have “natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair”, and he smokes “an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes”, blowing “out a beautiful grey ring of smoke”. Gandalf is portrayed as a “little old man with a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak” and having a “long white beard” and “immense black boots”. The picture also shows Bag End’s “perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle”. A detail is Bilbo’s hat; as far as I can see, there is no mention of Bilbo having a hat in the first chapter of The Hobbit. But in the beginning of the second chapter, “Roast Mutton”, it is written: “To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, [emphasis mine] walking-stick or say money”. It is possible that Lee drew inspiration from this remark! Furthermore, in illustration nr. 11, Lee has taken care to include only those instruments mentioned by Tolkien.

Tolkien had strong opinions about art, and was often sceptical towards illustrations inspired by his works, especially when these deviated from descriptions in his textual passages (Reader's Guide, pp. 418–22). Robert J. Lee, however, was more-or-less faithful to the original text and it appears that Tolkien’s dislike for Lee’s work stems from a profound divergence in artistic taste and style between the two individuals.


Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Daniel Helen for various comments and suggestions.

References

Hammond, Wayne G. & Scull, Christina (2011). The Art of The Hobbit. London: HarperCollins.

Hammond, Wayne G. & Scull, Christina (2004; first published 1995). J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. London: HarperCollins.

Peng, Leif. “Storybook Illustration”, at http://todaysinspiration.blogspot.se/2006/09/storybook-illustration.html (dated 4 September 2006, accessed 31 July 2012).

Scull, Christina & Hammond, Wayne G. (2006). The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Readers Guide. London: HarperCollins.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1999; first published 1937). The Hobbit. London: HarperCollins.



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Professor Tolkien's Whimsical Talk

Tolkien (misc.)Posted by Morgan Thomsen Mon, April 30, 2012 18:03:20
On 14 December 1956, J.R.R. Tolkien made a speech at the opening of the new Deddington Library (Scull & Hammond, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, pp. 497–8). The Oxford Mail published an article from the opening on 15 December, but it appears to have been largely unknown that another article from the event was featured in The Banbury Advertiser on 19 December. As far I know, the latter article was first “re-discovered” when it was mentioned in a 2011 brochure from the Deddington Library.

The British Library was able to provide a photocopy of the original article, “Deddington’s New Library Opened by Mrs. L. Hichens – Prof. Tolkien’s Whimsical Talk”, appearing on page 5 in The Banbury Advertiser for 19 December 1956. I have made some efforts to contact a representative of The Banbury Advertiser (no longer in print), but without any success: the magazine appears to have been owned by a member of the Russell family of Deddington, and the original owner is deceased and his son now apparently lives in China (for this piece of information, thanks to David at the current Banbury Advertiser, not associated with the original publication [Update: link no longer available as of 27 April 2013]).

Below follows a low-resolution reproduction of the original article, and transcriptions of the passages dealing with J.R.R. Tolkien.

Deddington’s New Library Opened by Mrs. L. Hichens – Prof. Tolkien’s Whimsical Talk

Nowadays books are besieged by a great many powerful embattled enemies, some of whom have been strongly entrenched, and to be here at the opening of a strongpoint from which troops can be sent out against those enemies is a great honour.

Any schoolboy who noticed a similarity between these words spoken by Prof. J. R. R. Tolkien at the opening of the Deddington Branch Library on Friday afternoon, and an adventure story he had recently heard would not be far wrong. For Prof. Tolkien is the author of “The Lord of the Rings,” a remarkable fairy romance for which he invented 700,000 words, and which has in its three volumes been broadcast extensively on the B.B.C. schools programme.

Prof. Tolkien was speaking after the official opening by Mrs. Lionel Hichens, formerly the chairman of the Oxfordshire Education Committee.

Mrs. Hichens said it was a great day for the people who lived in or near Deddington.

“It’s now a great deal different from the sad, grey and horrible surroundings of the court,” she said (the library is situated in the former Deddington Courtroom), “and it has undergone a wonderful change.”

NATURALISED OXONIAN

Prof. Tolkien was introduced by the County Librarian, Miss M. Stanley-Smith, and in a whimsical address he said he felt that while not a native Oxonian, he could count himself a naturalised subject for he had lived at Oxford for the past 38 years.

Libraries, he said, were to blame for him, because he had never been able to distinguish between the fascination of finding fairy stories on the same shelves as Primers of the Gothic language. “Out of these things have come my books,” he said.

MINDS WITHOUT FOOD

“The wealth of books to be found here,” he said, “is food for the mind, and everyone knows that for the stomach to go without food for a long time is bad, but for the mind to go without food is even worse.”

He advised his audience that everything they read might eventually be of use to them. He had read pages which he had thought he had forgotten, and yet at the oddest times, the information which those pages had contained had proved of use to him.

VISIONS THROUGH WORMHOLES

“I have seen visions through the wormholes of books printed before Caxton died, and from the painting of skins of animals which roamed that County we don’t speak of at Wantage before Alfred was born,” he said.

He concluded with a verse from one of his volumes in the musical fairylike language that he invented.

He was thanked by the Rev. M. Frost, Vicar of Deddington, who said that the County Library Service was most useful.

INTENSE PLEASURE

Miss Christina Hole, the authoress and expert on English folklore, whose books are a popular “must” for many country-people, seconded Mr. Frost’s vote of thanks and thanked Prof. Tolkien for coming from those far lands which he had created. His works had given her and many others intense pleasure.

[…]

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