Greg and Tim Hildebrandt: The Tolkien Years

by Gregory Hildebrandt Jr.

Published by Watson-Gupptill Publications

128 pages, 2002





Lords of the Brush

Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski


Since it first appeared in the 1950s, The Lord of the Rings has inspired creativity in various forms. It has become a Bible for many, with thousands learning Elvish tongues and making the pilgrimage to Tolkien's grave. The recent film interpretation was not the first dramatization. Ralph Bakshi produced an animated version of the first half during the 1970s, which was an immediate flop. There was a radio play during Tolkien's lifetime and another in the 1980s. There is Tolkien-inspired music, from the Tolkien Ensemble's songs to a Lord of the Rings Symphony, not to mention jazz interpretations several years ago.

And, of course, there's art. It's all over the Internet these days, from fan art to a cheeky Web site that pretends classic paintings are scenes from the novel. There are illustrated editions of Tolkien's works by the likes of John Howe, Alan Lee, Ted Naismith and Michael Hague, Howe and Lee becoming designers for the movie. The novel even reached into the Danish royal family, inspiring art from Queen Margrethe II, whose work Tolkien himself liked.

Between 1976 and 1978, Ballantine Books produced three Tolkien calendars, painted by twin brothers Greg and Tim Hildebrandt. I still have the two I bought, and treasure them. They were wonderful visual interpretations of Tolkien's universe, produced by artists who were passionate about their subject. The Hildebrandts worked in acrylics -- as far as I know, the same stuff you and I used in high school art, yet with what a different result. They painted together, and still do, often working on the same piece at the same time.

During those years, they set up a studio in an old barn at Greg's home, first photographing models, then doing their painting. Nobody who turned up was safe -- family and friends, anyone they caught was thrown into a costume which might be anything from a blanket stitched to resemble a cloak to a bathrobe, and photographed. The Hildebrandts posed for quite a few paintings themselves, sometimes using their own bodies and someone else's face, for example Tim's body and their father's face for the role of Bilbo Baggins. The local park became the wilderness of Middle Earth, a toy horse belonging to Greg's daughter became the magical steed Shadowfax, a gnarled old tree was the model for Old Man Willow.

All this was watched by Greg's five-year-old son, Gregory, now the author of Greg and Tim Hildebrandt: The Tolkien Years, with what SF fans would describe as sensuwunda. Young Gregory was used as a model for the younger hobbits, his face for the hero, Frodo.

Now an adult and a writer, he recalls those years with enormous affection and conveys beautifully that same sense of wonder he felt during his childhood. The painting process he witnessed was, for a little boy, a magical journey in its own right. He saw his family members and their friends transformed into warriors, wizards, elf queens (his mother as Galadriel), water nymphs ( his auntie Rita as Goldberry), even the villainous Gollum (his uncle Tim). Places familiar to him became parts of another world. Even a fish brought from his mother's shopping trip became part of the painting of Gollum.

Greg and Tim Hildebrandt: The Tolkien Years provides a fascinating window into the art most frequently associated with the The Lord of the Rings. If you're lucky enough to own those calendars, you'll be fascinated by the description of the process of creating them. There are snippets of reminiscence from the artists themselves. If you've only seen the film, you might be interested to see how the characters were cast in these artists' imagination. Aragorn, for example, with long hair and a mustache, looking like a 17th-century cavalier, Sam as rather fat. If you don't own the calendars you'll find a selection of paintings from them beautifully reproduced in this lavish book, plus some early sketches and a couple of paintings done later on commission, for private purchasers. There is also a pullout poster of the siege of Minas Tirith that never appeared in the calendars at all.

A gorgeous book, but one with fascinating text as well as the Hildebrandts' beautiful art, by no means merely an attempt to cash in on the film. It is a special book, well worth the price. | December 2002


Sue Bursztynski is a freelance writer based in Australia.