Famous last words
I first met John on a Singapore Airlines flight to New Zealand in January 1998. We talked about our approaches to illustrating Tolkien, and John spoke passionately of the need to construct fantasy on a bedrock of authenticity.
He also mentioned that he’d brought along a few items from his own collection of medieval artefacts and re-creations to serve as inspiration and reference. I waited for him at Auckland airport and he eventually emerged with his trolley piled high with boxes containing his shields, swords, and armour, and carrying his longbow over his shoulder. “But John, where’s your suitcase?” I asked. We peered back through the gateway and could see it sitting forlornly in the Customs hall, but there was a ‘No Entry’ sign and a large man resembling a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman between us and it. It took John another half hour to negotiate the retrieval of the sinister-looking object while I guarded his arsenal of medieval weaponry, and we made the flight to Wellington with minutes to spare.
So began our friendship and our part of the adventure of creating the look of Middle-earth for Peter Jackson’s film trilogy of “The Lord of the Rings”. We shared a studio at Weta working alongside Richard Taylor’s designers on creatures, armour and weaponry, and on the long list of miniatures which were to be created for the films. There was a lot of consultation between us and Richard and Grant Major, the Production Designer, and of course with Peter, who was always encouraging us to take a fresh look at things we’d each drawn many times before. Our labours seemed to divide up quite naturally, with John concentrating on the darker aspects of Middle-earth – Fell beasts, the Balrog, Barad-dûr, Minas Morgul and the Black Gates etc, while I kept mainly to the safer side of the Anduin. There were exceptions though and John’s designs for the Bucklebury Ferry, the Green Dragon Inn and the beautifully detailed Bag End set would please even the most discerning of Hobbits.
John is highly productive, producing brilliant drawings in the brief periods when his turbo-charged metabolism allows him to sit still – then running off to the Weta armoury and returning half an hour later with a handful of Orcish arrowheads that he’d just forged. This energy can be traced in many of his drawings, where a Gollum, or a Ringwraith, a hilt for one of the many beautiful swords he designed, and a conceptual design for Shelob’s Lair, for example, fight each other for space on the same sheet of paper. Afternoons were punctuated by the occasional clash of arms as impromptu duels between John and the armourers were fought in t he Weta forecourt.
John’s knowledge of the medieval world was an inspiration for all of us working alongside him, and his passion for authenticity in weapons, armour and fighting styles, forged from his experience as an illustrator and his long-term involvement in medieval re-enactment, will be reflected, in many of the more dramatic scenes in the films.
His paintings always grasp as the most vivid moments. The detail and scope of his imagery is always impressive, always lifting the viewer’s gaze to new heights. He is a true Gothicist in his art, and in the liveliness of his mind, his insatiable curiosity and in his genuine love for the values of chivalry as well as its trappings.
I think John would have been perfectly happy as a medieval scribe, covering the borders of his manuscripts with a wilderness of vibrant design, or as a craftsman working high up on a cathedral tower creating an endless tracery of creatures and characters but, fortunately for us, his work is reaching a wider public through his books and film designs.
His love and respect for Tolkien’s world is apparent through the imaginative power of his illustrations and the integrity he brings to all aspects of his design work. Large tracts of Middle-earth are brooded over by John’s awe-inspiring structures. His Barad-dûr, glimpsed through clouds of swirling vapour, will be an enduring image in many minds, as will his Gandalf striding purposefully through the Shire.
That image, and a few treasured photos will remind me of one of the most pleasant facets of our experience in New Zealand: exploring its hill, forests and mountains looking at possible location. I got fairly fit trying to keep up with Peter Jackson but John seemed to be everywhere at once – a tiny silhouette standing on a crag to the left, then a determined figure marching across a hillside to the right, flocks of sheep scattering before him like Orcs before Anduril. He absorbed his experience here with a gusto that I sat back and marveled at. I look forward to seeing how it manifests itself in his subsequent work.
These are the last words (and by someone famous besides!) in “Myth & Magic – The Art of John Howe” (there are famous words in the front too, in the form of Peter Jackson’s foreword). I owe Alan many favours, for his generosity, his incredible talent, for the road down which we travelled from Hobbiton to parts far beyond.