The Mythic Art of Alan Lee
Wednesday, September 02, 2020
"I have a very clear memory of my first encounter with myth," Alan Lee recalls, "sitting in a mobile library and travelling, at the same time, with Theseus on the road to Athens. By the time we'd met and disposed of the pine-bending giant Sinis, I'd become completely entranced. Within a few months I'd read every book on myths, legends, and folklore in our two nearest libraries."
The young boy entranced by ancient tales never lost his taste for magic and myth, and grew up to become one of the finest book illustrators of our time. His distinctively elegant watercolor paintings -- adorning Greek myths, Arthurian legends, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and other magical tales -- have earned him a world-wide following, the prestigious Kate Greenaway Award, museum and gallery exhibitions around the globe, and the deep respect of fellow artists and writers in the publishing field. Like Arthur Rackham or Edmund Dulac from Britain's Golden Age of illustration, Alan's work imbues imaginary landscapes with such startling reality one can almost step inside the paintings to travel beyond the visible horizon. Walking into his Devon studio, filled to the brim with paintings and books, is to cross a portal into the Otherworld of a master artist's vision, a place where stories come to life in pencil strokes and washes of color.
Alan was born in Middlesex in 1947, and decided at a young age that art would be his life's vocation. After training at Ealing School of Art he became a freelance illustrator, working in the fields of book publishing, advertising, and film. During these early years, his London work space was shared with a number of other artists -- including Brian Froud, a painter also drawn to myths and legends. These two friends teamed up to create Faeries, a book exploring the rich tradition of faery lore in the British isles, reaching past the modern image of the creatures (sweet little sprites with butterfly wings) to capture the faeries of the old oral tales: earthy, wild, mysterious, and capricious as a force of nature. Published in 1978, this ground-breaking book became an international bestseller, and an influential text for a whole generation of artists, writers, and film-makers to come.
Just prior to the creation of Faeries, Alan, his family, and Brian moved from London to rural Devon, settling in a small village at the edge of Dartmoor. The mossy woods, wild hedgerows, and mythic grandeur of the moor had a strong effect on Alan's work: he is, in truth, a landscape artist as much as he is an illustrator, creating imagery born from the lines, textures, colors, and forms of the natural world. Dartmoor proved to be the perfect setting for an artist of Alan's temperament: a land of great and varied beauty, rich in history and myth, full of Bronze Age ruins, clapper bridges, and standing stones on the wind-swept hills.
In Arthurian lore, Merlin (the great magician of Arthur's court) retreats to the Forest of Celydonn after the Battle of Arderydd, living an elemental existence alongside the wolves and the deer. It is only after this retreat into nature that he comes fully into his magical powers -- an initiatory process echoed in myth cycles throughout the world. For Alan, the move to Devon was his own retreat into Celydonn. Wandering over the moor, through Wistman's Wood, and up winding paths by the River Teign, he came into his full powers as an artist, a magician upon the page.
The success of Faeries allowed him the time to pursue a project dear to his heart: paintings inspired by The Mabinogion, the great myth cycle of Wales. These magnificent tales are firmly rooted in the soil of the Welsh countryside, so he followed the threads of the stories to Dyfed and Snowdonia, soaking in the colors, forms, and spirit of these myth-haunted landscapes. Returning to his Devon studio with reference photos and sketchbook notes, Alan created a body of extraordinary paintings to accompany the Jones & Jones translation of the text. This edition of The Mabinogion, published in 1982, remains one of the artist's finest accomplishments to date.
Over the next several years, he continued to chose book projects with mythic resonance, such as Castles: a book of imagery drawn from myth, romance, and magical literature, with text by David Day; Merlin's Dream: Arthurian tales beautifully retold by Peter Dickinson; and two children's picture books: The Mirrorstone, with text by Michel Palin, and The Moon's Revenge, with text by Joan Aiken.
During these years he also pursued his second career as a concept artist and designer for feature films, working on such fantasy classics as Legend, directed by Ridley Scott, and Erik the Viking, directed by Terry Jones.*
In 1988, Alan was approached by J.R.R. Tolkien's publisher to create fifty new paintings for The Lord of the Rings, to be published in a handsome edition celebrating the centenary of Tolkien's birth. He immersed himself in this work for two years, resulting in illustrations so perfect, and so universally acclaimed, that they are now ineluctably bound with Tolkien's great story for readers all over the world.
"I first encountered The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was eighteen," he remembers. "It felt as though Tolkien had taken every element I'd ever want in a story and woven them into one huge, seamless narrative. And, even more important for me, he had created a place -- a vast, beautiful, awesome landscape -- which lingered in the mind long after the protagonists had finished their battles and gone their separate ways."
How, I ask, does an artist even begin to approach a project like this? Particularly when illustrating a text that has meant so much to so many.
"Humbly," Alan says promptly. Then he pauses to give the question more thought. "Every artist works differently, of course, but my own approach to The Lord of the Rings was to allow the landscapes to predominate. In some of my scenes, the characters are so small they are barely discernible. This helped me to avoid, as much as possible, interfering with the pictures in the reader's mind, which tend to focus on the characters and their inter-relationships. My task lay in shadowing the heroes as they traveled on their epic quest -- often at something of a distance, coming closer at times of heightened emotion -- rather than simply re-creating the dramatic highpoints of the story. Later, when I illustrated The Hobbit, it no longer seemed appropriate to keep such a distance, particularly from the hero himself. I don't think I've ever seen a drawing of a hobbit which quite convinces me -- and I don't know whether I've gotten any closer to Tolkien's vision myself with my depiction of Bilbo. I'm fairly happy with my picture of him standing outside his home, Bag End, before Gandalf arrives and turns his world upside-down -- but I've come to the conclusion that one of the reasons Hobbits are so quiet and elusive is to avoid the prying eyes of illustrators."
In 1992, Alan began a journey into a very different kind of landscape when he agreed to illustrate The Illiad and The Odyssey, re-told for young readers by Rosemary Sutcliff. He'd loved these stories since childhood, and yet he hesitated before taking on the books.
"I was apprehensive," he explains, "about spending so much time on the battle plains of Troy when my natural home, and main source of inspiration, was the woods and sodden hills of Dartmoor. I'd rarely attempted to paint a landscape that wasn't at least as wet as the watercolors I worked in. I travelled to Greece, for the first time, with a copy of Pausanias as a guide, weighed down by paints, sketchpads, and camera. Most of the action takes place in Turkey, not Greece, but I'd heard that there wasn't a lot to see at the site of Troy itself, so I thought Mycenae would be a good substitute. I visited all the sites and museums I could, drawing artifacts and large crowds of Greek school children. I fell in love with all the Korai at the Acropolis; and, best of all, I went to Delphi. It had nothing to do with the story I was illustrating, but it's set in one of the most remarkable and beautiful landscapes I've ever seen."
Alan describes his research process as a way of "priming the pump," filling himself with ideas and images before he actually sits down to work. Though his painting process is an intuitive one, it is nonethless grounded in the real. Armed with hundreds of reference photos, sketchbooks filled with notes, and the visual impressions of his travels through Greece, he returned to his Devon studio to create a magical Greece that never was: half-way between myth and history, between Homer's world and the realm of the gods. The landscape, as always, came first -- and then he recruited family, friends, and neighbors to model for the extended dramatis personae of the tales. (I recall coming into his courtyard at the time to find a dying Odysseus laid out on the picnic table, Penelope swooning above him.)
Sadly, Rosemary Sutcliff died before the art was completed, and never saw her words brought so vividly to life in The Black Ships of Troy (winner of the Kate Greenaway Gold Medal) and The Wanderings of Oysseus.
At the end of the 1990s, Alan traveled to Wellington, New Zealand to begin work as Conceptual Designer of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy; and in 2004, he won an Academy Award for his role in translating Middle-earth to the big screen. For many years we didn't see much of him as labour on the films went on and on, followed by Jackson's two Hobbit films. But when they were done, and he finally came home, our small village felt suddenly 'right' again. His quietly presence had been deeply missed.
Other film jobs followed, but Alan managed to keep up with the book world too -- illustrating Tolkien's posthumous publications (The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, etc.), as well as Shapeshifters: Tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses (retold by Adrian Mitchell) and The Wanderer (a splendid Folio Society edition of Old-English poetry). In between book and film projects, you'd often find him rambling the moor or sketching trees in the local woods: rendering the land he loved best in paintings, drawings, and etchings.
"I spend as much time as I can sketching from nature," he explains. "Dartmoor contains such a rich variety of landscape -- as many boulders, foaming rivers, and twisted trees as my heart could ever desire. When I look into a river, I feel I could spend a whole lifetime painting that river, from source to sea, and nothing else."
Alan works from a two-floor studio in an old stone barn half-smothered in ivy and roses. It's a magical place, with a silvery light and a sense of calm and tranquility -- despite an overflow of papers and books, and perpetual deadlines looming. In the large upstairs room, the walls are covered with etchings, drawings, and printers' proofs; the shelves hold rows of black sketchbooks filled with drawings, whimsical doodles, and notes; and the drawers are packed with paintings created through decades of steady work. Downstairs, an etching press sits among paintings boxed-up to ship to exhibitions. Across a courtyard is a second barn, newly renovated and largely empty -- a space adaptable for music, or dance, or solitary contemplation, whatever the moment might call for.
We sit in the cobbled courtyard now, tea, scones, and jam on the table before us. The white roses are in bloom, and music drifts down from an upper window.
"I like working in watercolor," Alan tells me," with as little under-drawing as I can get away with. I like the unpredictability of a medium which is affected as much by humidity, gravity, the way that heavier particles in the wash settle into the undulations of the paper surface, as by whatever I wish to do with it. In other mediums you are more in control, responsible for every mark on the page -- but with watercolor you are in a dialogue with the paint. It responds to you, and you respond to it in turn. It's a conversation. Printmaking also has this quality, this unpredictable element -- requiring an intuitive response, encouraging a spontaneity that allows the magic to happen.
"When I begin an illustration, I usually work up from small sketches -- which indicate, in a simple way, something of the atmosphere or the dynamics of the picture. Then I do drawings on a larger scale, supported by life studies from models if figures play a large part in the composition. When I've reached the stage where the drawing looks good enough, I'll transfer it to watercolor paper -- but the drawing is still fairly loosely rendered. I like to leave as much unresolved as possible before starting to put on washes of color. This allows for an interaction with the medium itself, a dialogue between me and the paint. Otherwise it's too much like painting by number, or a one-sided conversation."
I know so many young artists who look up to Alan, so I ask him which artists he looked up to himself in his youth. He answers readily:
"I was strongly influenced, in technique as well as subject matter, by the early 20th century book illustrators -- Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac in particular. And by Burne-Jones and other Pre-Raphaelites. Also by the various artists of the Arts-&-Crafts movement in England and Scotland. Going further back, I'm continually inspired by Rembrandt, Breughel (I've often wondered whether his brilliant "Tower of Babel" inspired Tolkien's description of Minas Tyrith), Hieronymous Bosch, and Albrecht Durer. It's not that these earlier artists have influenced my pictures in any obvious way, but that their example raises my spirits, and re-affirms my belief in the power of images to move and delight us. They show me how much further I have to go, and how much is possible."
We'd been in Florence and Venice together with a group of friends, so I bring up the Italian Renaissance painters and Alan's face lights up.
"I'd always liked the Italian masters," he says, "but now I'm completely besotted with Botticelli, Bellini, da Vinci, and the rest. To see their work in its natural landscape and light is a revelation. The paintings are calm, controlled, and yet each face, each form, each hill or flower or tree contains such passion. In Botticelli's paintings, every pebble and every leaf is rendered with a religious devotion. There's a reverence inherent in paying such close attention to every stone...turning painting itself into a form of worship, an act of prayer. I'm still thinking about it, still working through what effect this may have on my own approach to drawing and painting."
I ask whether he, too, sees painting as an act of communication with something beyond our human ken: God, Mystery, call it what you will.
"Yes," he answers slowly, "but perhaps in a more mythological sense than the religious orientation of the Renaissance. To draw a tree, to pay such close attention to every aspect of a tree, is indeed an act of reverence -- not only toward the tree, but toward our human connection to the tree, and to nature. It is one of the magical things about drawing: it gives us almost visionary moments of connectedness. Every element (hair, wind, rocks, water) is portrayed with one material (graphite, ink, paint) which binds it all together, bringing out the harmony that we know, and science confirms, exists in nature -- created as it is, as we all are, by particles that have existed since the dawn of the universe.
'This is the power of myth as well: it binds to the natural world. There have always been mythic tales of figures whose function is to act as an intermediary between humanity and nature: the shaman, the shape-shifter, the trickster, the embodiments of creative power, appearing in myths, fairy tales, and medieval legends all around the world. Often they have a touch of 'divine madness' -- like Merlin, or Shuibhne in Ireland, during their years of exile and madness in the woods, through which they gained their divinatory powers. It's interesting to me that in our century it is often artists who fulfill this function. And who, in popular stereotype, are given the license to be a bit mad. Look at Picasso, a classic trickster figure if there ever was one.
"The power of both myth and art," he continues, "is this magical ability to open doors and to make connections -- not only between us and the natural world, but between us and the rest of humanity. Myths show us what we have in common with every other human being, no matter what culture we come from, no matter what century we live in. And at the same time, mythic stories and art celebrate our essential differences.
"When I first encountered Greek myths as a child, the stories provoked a degree of excitement that can't be explained by their value as adventures, however great that may be. Although the stories were new to me, I felt a sense of recognition. My response to them, in particular to the otherworldly elements, suggests they were meeting a spiritual need that had not been touched by dull lectures at school, or the church services I regularly dozed through. I'm not suggesting that I wanted to sacrifice a bull to Zeus or consult a Sybil -- I didn't known any Sybils -- but that I'd found, unconsciously, a wider and deeper context for my hopes and fears. Myth gave me a sense of continuity and communion with the people of different times and cultures, and an enhanced and more imaginative relationship with the natural world."
The intersection of myth and art can indeed produce a form of magic connecting us to the numinous world -- and this is evident in the timeless beauty of Alan's illustrations of classic tales. The wandering paths of Middle Earth, the great green valleys of ancient Wales, the vistas over the plains of Troy, and twisted trees of the Devon woods all create a spell as potent and lasting as any conjured by Merlin himself.
Yet the quiet magician behind the paintings seems unaware of the power of the magic he creates with pencil, pen and brush.
"I keep drawing the trees, the rocks, the river," he says. "I'm still learning how to see them. I'm still discovering how to render their forms. I will spend a lifetime doing that. Maybe someday I'll get it right."
The paintings, drawings, sculptures, & photographs above are under copright by Alan Lee, and may not be reproduced without his permission; all rights are reserved by the artist. The pictures are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)