[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.
I am grateful to Daniel Helen for various comments and suggestions.
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: Reader’s Guide. London: HarperCollins.
Tolkien, J.R.R. (1999; first published 1937). The Hobbit. London: HarperCollins.