Tolkien and Illustration – An Interview with Ted Nasmith

Ted Nasmith, one of the most recognizable and recognized illustrator of professor Tolkien’s work, has been for many years a good friend and supporter of our Society. He has graciously allowed us to use his work, has kept in contact and is still awaiting the perfect opportunity to visit us.  In this spirit of fellowship, he agreed to answer some questions posed to him by Dimitris Kolovos.

How did you become aware of Tolkien’s works for the first time as a reader and how did they become one of the biggest sources of inspiration for you and your paintings?

TN: I was a teenager, maybe 14? My older sister suggested I might like The Fellowship of the Ring, a book she’d read because her boyfriend was into the trilogy. My reaction was nearly instantaneous when I did read it soon afterwards; there was a very powerful warmth and sense of excitement.
As an art student, and illustrator in training, The Lord of the Rings was a very strong inspiration for possibilities in drawing, and I was soon drawing my impressions of characters. The delight I felt in creating the art never let up; I just continued applying my talents to Tolkien’s great novels the “LotR” and the “Hobbit”. “The Silmarillion” was yet to come.

Which one of Tolkien’s literary works do you admire the most? Is it the same that has inspired you the most so far?

TN: I suppose The Lord of the Rings ranks highest for me, despite that “The Silmarillion” has a very special, enduring appeal, and offers less travelled artistic subjects. And I do believe that the “LotR” appeals most because it was my first impression of Middle-earth, but also because of the type of novel it is, lovingly and laboriously written as a work complete. “The Silmarillion” will never be whatever Tolkien once dreamed it might be. We only have the work Christopher Tolkien (and Guy Kay) managed to assemble and edit. The Hobbit is aimed at younger readers, of course, and was altered from the original in order to roughly harmonize with the “LotR”, so though I very much love it, it is not the favourite.

Gandalf Rides to Minas Tirith

What do you consider your biggest virtue as an artist? Do you prefer drawings or paintings? And is it landscapes or beings that you are best at?

TN: I am far and away a better landscape artist than character artist, though I always work hard to achieve satisfaction with my characters. I draw landscapes easily and convincingly out of my head. Figures and anatomy aren’t as effortless, though my freehand facility is pretty good. And I prefer paintings to drawings, yes. Unless it is drawings in a refined way, as were done for A Game of Thrones, the deluxe 2-volume set. Many drawings were in pencil, sometimes on tone paper with white highlights—very nice work, and a chance to hone skills in that medium.
Virtue-wise, I’d say I’m just an old fashioned, dedicated illustrator with a gift for realism and old media!

How was your work acknowledged for the first time in the Tolkienian circles? How did people not at all acquainted with J. R. R. Tolkien’s work treat your art that is connected to him?

TN: I never worried about people who didn’t ‘get’ why I was devoting time and energy to Tolkien art, since there were lots of people who did approve, and because I was super-inspired by the books. But in the 70s, I had no way of knowing where to find fans outside my circle of friends. I did realize that in order to share my art, it needed to be published somehow, and with annual illustrated calendars coming out then, I investigated who to contact in that regard.
I eventually came to realize that Tolkien’s publishers were English, not American (or Canadian) and I had also by then come across The Tolkien Society, a British society. I wrote to them, and then joined, and through them my art (in photos) came to the attention of editors at George Allen and Unwin.

Could you give us a small summary of your collaboration with the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien’s publishers and Weta Studios concerning the illustrations in the books and your work regarding the movies?

TN: As I alluded to previously, I made contact with George Allen and Unwin, about a decade after starting to illustrate the books. By that time The Silmarillion was also available, and I was becoming acquainted with it, I should add.
I soon received a letter praising my efforts from Jane Johnson soon after, and following up on that, an invitation to meet with editor David Fielder at The World Fantasy Convention in Ottawa in the mid-80s. After seeing my originals, he said that they were interested in using them in an upcoming Tolkien Calendar. This was before the internet, and because I was planning to tour England (to seek art in museums by my favourites among the Pompier artists), I brought the originals with me, and left them with G. A. & U. to photograph, retrieving them on my return to London. From then on, my art began being published every few years in the calendars.
In the mid-90s I submitted a series of colour roughs of many scenes in The Silmarillion, having reread it looking for ideas over several months prior, then developing the sketches. That soon landed me the illustrating project for the book, and contact directly with Christopher Tolkien. Prior to that I met him twice; once at Mythcon 1987 (Milwaukee, USA), and again at the Centenary Conference in 1992 (Oxford, UK). We worked quite agreeably together in the illustrations, with Mr. Tolkien as consultant, discussing choices of illustration subject and any concerns he may have, but otherwise having a fairly free hand.
I continue to have a cordial relationship with HarperCollins, who became Tolkien’s publishers in the early 90s, and after The Silmarillion (illustrated) was published in 2 versions, I again was commissioned to illustrate the JRR Tolkien Calendar, creating 13 pieces of art each for the years 2002, 3, and 4, and for which I again had a free hand to choose scenes.

The Kinslaying at Alqualonde

What art movements have inspired you the most when it comes to your Tolkien-related art and in general?

TN: I’ve tended to look to traditional painting and 19th century illustrators for guidance on style and general feel, as well as to a number of 20th century illustrators. I mentioned Pompier art, which is traditional classical painting from the British and French art academies, often celebrating Greek myth or classical Greece in its golden age. Also the Dusseldorf School of landscape painting, as well as American Luminist art. Faerie illustration plays a role, naturally, and also Victorian Faerie paintings. That’s a reasonable summary, without going into great detail.
In other realms of illustration, the influences were from the best of the realists in the respective fields, whether automotive, architectural, book illustration (non Tolkien), advertising, educational, or what have you.

We have seen that J. R. R. Tolkien and his works have affected deeply the 20th century and continue to do so. Art, Literature, Music and the Academia are just a few areas that we see the Professor’s influence. Could you make a small assessment of how much he affected art and in what ways?

TN: It’s not really my area of expertise, but I’d say Tolkien has had an immeasurable effect on the genre of fantasy, and thus its art, reviving interest in traditional faerie concepts and mythology overall. I suspect that because the “LotR” is part of popular culture, and the Baby Boom generation grew up with it, along with all the other cultural influences, especially comics that presented myths in modern guise, it has risen to being identified with our era, particularly after the films were created, opening up the floodgates for recognition of Professor Tolkien’s worlds.

Eärendil Searches Tirion,

We watch many people inspired by the works of the Professor coming forth and revealing their creations. Jay Johnstone and Elena Kukanova are just two examples of the many we can present. Do you believe that Tolkien can pose a diachronic influence in art and that more and more artists will try to follow your example?

Well, Tolkien famously acknowledged that his creation, as elaborate as it is, is limited to what time and energy he was able to devote to it in his lifetime, but that “other hands, wielding paint, music or drama” might broaden what he authored and continue to be a force for creative expression of it. Given that there are boundaries of copyright and tensions around expanding the actual prose and stories, as well as the constraints for the other mediums of expression, it’s remarkable how much art has been created, and how good the art inspired by Tolkien has become, some of it of very high caliber indeed. Welsh composer Paul Corfield Godfrey is even now putting out CDs of his 4 operas composed from the high tales of “The Silmarillion”, for instance. It will continue to occupy niches of pop culture, mainly, but also high culture, and the stream of academic analysis of Tolkien’s multifaceted work is also testimony to his great importance.
I’ve always striven for excellence in portrayals of the scenes, believing that Tolkien justifies taking that approach. I also believe that his fantasy is of a stature that will endure the test of time (so far so good!), and if I’ve helped inspire younger illustrators to explore the joys of realist fantasy in painting, or my illustrations have touched people, I’ll have achieved something especially meaningful, and in that same spirit of continuance of Tolkien’s ‘other hands’.







Ted Nasmith, November 2018