10 July 2012

Tolkien's World - Paintings of Middle-earth

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This book actually is my first art book. I don't even remember if somebody gave it to me or if I bought it myself. I read The Lord of the Rings before the films were made, and since this book was at that point the only visual reference for anything LOTR, it heavily influenced my idea of how things looked. For example, Legolas very definitely had dark hair, because there's one portrait of him with dark hair in this book. This was before I became serious about art, even before I was aware of art or illustration as concepts. In fact, I remember this being one of the things (along with Dinotopia) that made me realise that art was actually made by people. I even remember realising that I liked the art of some of these people better than others. I had met my first art hero, John Howe.

But enough remembering, how does this book measure as an art book, when I look at it today? It opens with a one-page biography on Tolkien, which is nice, then launches into the main part, which contains 60 paintings by various artists (namely: Ted Nasmith, Alan Lee, John Howe, Michael Hague, Robert Goldsmith, Roger Garland, Tony Galuidi, Carol Emery Phenix, and Inger Edelfeldt). The pictures follow a rough chronology beginning with The Hobbit, going on through the Lord of The Rings, and finishing with The Silmarillion and other books. Annoyingly enough, a few of the pictures are just out of order, like how the (amazing) Ted Nasmith painting of Gandalf facing off with the Balrog comes after the Roger Garland one, depicting the fallen Balrog's whip grabbing hold of Gandalf. I mean, how hard can it be to get that right?

On each spread, the picture is on the right page, and on the left is a passage of text that that image illustrates. This leads to another thing that annoys me. Most of the texts are appropriate, but some describe the scene right before or right after the moment the painting depicts, and some are just way off. Like how the John Howe painting of some orcs that clearly have the eye of Sauron on their helmets is accompanies by a bit of dialogue that is spoken by Saruman's Uruk-Hai, debating what to do with the captured Hobbits. Anonymous editor, you had ONE JOB.

To point these problems out is geeky and petty, and in general, the quality of this book is high. One larger problem though, that I see in too many art books, is the reluctance to flip horizontal paintings on their side so that larger pictures could fit on the page. If a person buys a book full of art, he does it for the pictures, not because he's looking for something that minimizes the risk of having to use his arms a little. The only thing worse is when they make the painting occupy both pages of a spread, with the focal point in the gutter. (On a side note, I once saw a book with Repin's Ivan the Terrible and His Son with the people RIGHT in the gutter. If you click on that link, you will see that the entire rest of the painting is background). Thankfully, because of the text/image format of Tolkien's World, this is not a problem.

Since I just spent three paragraphs complaining, I would like to point out again that I like this book very much. The reproductions are good and the layout is nice. It was first published in 1992, so most of the paintings are from the 80s, which was really the golden age for the Tolkien Calendar. It's probably not the most complete anthology of Tolkien art out there (if you know of a better one, please tell me about it in the comments!), but it's still a very nice collection of art in many different styles, and it introduced me to a lot of very good artists at a point when I didn't even really know that fantasy art existed as a genre.

Tolkien's World
Paintings of Middle-earth
Harper Collins
Soft Cover, about 70-80 pages
ISBN: 0-261-10307-5

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