Grave Goods – Alan Lee

Alan Lee in his studio
Alan Lee in his studio

Alan Lee was born in Middlesex in 1947, and an early interest in folklore and myths has turned into a lifelong pursuit in his career as a book illustrator and designer for films, most notably for of the works of JRR Tolkien. In 2004 he received an Academy Award for art direction on Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. His most recent publications are JRR Tolkien’s The Fall of Gondolin and Unfinished Tales, The Hobbit Sketchbook and, as a limited edition for the Folio society, The Wanderer and other Old English Poems.

Tools of the trade:

I will be buried with sketchbooks and pencils. I’ve probably absorbed enough graphite by now to be part pencil myself. I would like my coffin to have a sliding top, with room for an eraser and a knife for sharpening, or for digging my way out in the event of my death being mis-diagnosed.

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Food for the journey:

Dim Sum; some of my happiest hours have been spent with friends around a Lazy Susan, choosing from a constantly replenished supply of sticky rice and tasty dumplings. This would evoke memories of lunches in Gerard Street, in Soho, where I started working as an illustrator in 1970, and in Wellington, New Zealand, which was my home for twelve years while working on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, as well as of a lovely visit to China in 2015. And those little bamboo baskets would be perfect for a long otherworld journey.

Ship Burial, Alan Lee
Ship Burial, Alan Lee

Memento Vivere:

A few years before my death (too few) I discovered a love for dancing to Argentinian tango music that occupied many non-drawing hours – before Covid 19 made this an even more dangerous and ill-advised pursuit. So perhaps a pair of dance shoes on my feet to lighten my journey through the underworld and remind me of some lovely milongas and many nice connections.

Ex Libris:

The book(s) – if I may be allowed a trilogy- would be Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, along with Titus Groan and Titus Alone. I can’t think of a more richly entertaining set of characters and a more brilliantly imagined setting than in this tale of an ancient, enfeebled aristocracy, hidebound by tradition, and the thuggish and ambitious genius, Steerpyke, who brings about it’s downfall. Eerily prescient of life in the 2020’s as well!

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy, cover by Alan Lee
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, cover by Alan Lee

Lucky Deposition:

'Knight, Death and Devil', Albrecht Dürer, engraving, 1513
‘Knight, Death and Devil’, Albrecht Dürer, engraving, 1513

If I were interred with one piece of art it would have to be a print as I would hate to deprive the living of any objects that may bring joy or solace. I’ve always had a fascination for printing processes; my first job was in a large printing company and I loved watching those Heidelbergs and Rotary presses in action – and I have an etching press. I would take a copy of Albretch Durer’s engraving, “Knight, Death and the Devil”. This, and his “Melancholia”, had a powerful and formative influence on me. I could contemplate my life’s choices while losing myself in the maze of lines and symbols, and being reminded of the awe-inspiring heights of skill and imagination that mortals are capable of.

A Message From Beyond the Grave:

I hope you haven’t removed the oak tree which was planted above my grave, but if you have I trust that you will fashion it into something useful or beautiful, and that you will plant at least half a dozen saplings to replace it. My use of the phrase “half a dozen” is to help you age my remains.

Rhosgobel interior. Home of Radagast the Brown
Rhosgobel interior. Home of Radagast the Brown

Alan’s slightly longer biography:

Alan Lee was born and raised in London, where he studied graphic design. Enchanted by myth and folklore from an early age, he gravitated toward the field of book illustration — inspired by Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, master illustrators of the early twentieth century. Alan worked as an illustrator in London until the mid-1970s, when he moved to Dartmoor with fellow-artists Marja Lee Kruÿt and Brian Froud. At the suggestion of Ian Ballantine (the legendary American publisher), Alan, Brian and the designer David Larkin created the book Faeries, inspired by the Dartmoor countryside and European fairy lore.

Amongst other works Alan has also illustrated The Mabinogion, Castles, Joan Aiken’s the Moon’s Revenge, The Mirrorstone, with Michael Palin and Richard Seymour, Merlin Dreams by Peter Dickinson, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Illiad (winner of the prestigious Kate Greenaway Award), and the  centenary edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, as well as The Hobbit.

Minas & Me, Alan Lee
Minas & Me, Alan Lee

For six years, however, book projects were set aside while he worked in New Zealand  on Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. As conceptual designer for the films, it was Alan’s job to help create the distinctive “look” of Middle Earth. He was involved in all aspects of the design of the films – particularly with the miniatures, sets and visual effects – and in 2004 he received an Academy Award for his work. After returning to Devon in September, 2004, Alan worked on some of his own projects, as well as producing a new book, “The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook” which gives an insight into some of the working processes involved in both book illustration and designing for film. He also illustrated “Shapeshifters” – a retelling, by Adrian Mitchell, of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.                      

In 2009 Alan returned to New Zealand to work on “The Hobbit” films, along with John Howe, and the designers at Weta Workshop. This project turned into another six year epic!

Other Tolkien related books illustrated include Tales from the Perilous Realm, The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, The Fall of Gondolin, and Unfinished Tales, all edited by Christopher Tolkien.  He has also published The Hobbit Sketchbook and a limited edition for the Folio society of The Wanderer and other Old English Poems.

Mirkwood, from the Hobbit Sketchbook. Alan Lee
Mirkwood, from the Hobbit Sketchbook. Alan Lee

When not working on film locations, Alan makes his home in Devon, England, where his studio takes up two floors of a granite  barn.  His interests include myth and folklore, literature, poetry, music and history, and long walks through Devon woodland. Alan’s daughter Virginia is also a talented sculptor and illustrator.

“As an illustrator, my aim is not to dictate how things should look, but to serve the authors vision, and to create an atmosphere, a space between the words where the eye and mind can wander, and imagine for themselves. . . what will happen next.”

— Alan Lee

2 thoughts on “Grave Goods – Alan Lee”

  1. Anne Atkinson

    An Amazing artist and man. And a lovely website too. I’d like to dip into itnregularly!

  2. Pleasantly peculiar project! And Alan is, of course, so appealing…

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