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The Art of Paul Raymond Gregory

March 2, 2013

Christina writes: Not long after I joined the Tolkien Society in 1981, the Chairman, Jonathan Simons, announced in the bulletin Amon Hen a rather optimistic plan for the Society to raise £100,000 to support artist Paul Gregory in his ‘mammoth project of depicting about sixty scenes from Lord of the Rings, on canvas’. At that time, Gregory had completed four paintings and hoped ‘to stage an exhibition when the paintings are completed in about three to five years’ time’ (Amon Hen 57, August 1982, p. 3). It was an impractical dream for the Society, but as a result, signed posters of some of Gregory’s early paintings were offered for sale to members: to begin with, Caradhras, then a year later, The Ride of the Rohirrim, each image roughly 20 × 33 inches (50.5 × 83.0 cm) plus border. Respectively, these cost £2.30 plus 70 pence U.K. packing and postage, and £3.50 including postage. I bought both, but because of problems with the Society’s sales officer I had to wait a long time for the second. I remember grumbling that if the Rohirrim had been as slow to reach Minas Tirith, they would have arrived too late to save the city. I did not buy a third poster, Death of Boromir, offered in July 1983, in part because I found it less attractive, but also because, in order to provide more income for Gregory, it was released only in a limited, higher quality edition of 500 copies, and even the special price of £68.00 offered to Tolkien Society members was more than I felt able to pay. Gregory did manage to find funding and a sponsor to allow him to devote time to continuing the series. In 1984, I saw the early paintings exhibited at the Barbican Art Gallery, London.

Beyond Time and Place ordinary editionAnd that was the last I heard of Paul Gregory until recently, when I saw an announcement for the book Beyond Time and Place: The Art of Paul Raymond Gregory from Studio 54 Publications, 2012. All of the pictures I mention below can be viewed in the Gallery section of Gregory’s website. Wayne and I bought the standard edition, hardcover, no dust-jacket, in a slipcase, for £30.00 plus packing and postage. The book is also available in a numbered, signed special edition of 500 copies, bound in red cloth with a signed art print, for £90.00 plus packing and postage. Each page of the book is 12 × 8.9 inches (30.5 × 22.5 cm), double page 17.8 inches wide (45 cm). I mention this because most of the original paintings are very large, some 6 × 10 feet (183 x 305 cm), and made even larger by their elaborate frames. A photograph of Gregory on p. 176 shows him in front of his three-part triptych The Designs of Melkor with the central picture towering over him. In this post I am concerned only with his illustrations of works by Tolkien, which occupy the greater part of the volume (pp. 8–89), including a section on frames. I will just list the other sections: ‘Heavy Metal’ (pp. 90–137), ‘Bloodstock’ (pp. 138–61), and ‘Other Work’ (pp. 162–75). Many of the illustrations are spread across two pages and our copy, at least, is bound so tightly that detail disappears into the shadow of the gutter.

The Tolkien section includes forty-nine paintings (counting the individual parts of triptychs) depicting scenes from Tolkien’s works, mainly The Lord of the Rings, though both The Hobbit and The Silmarillion are also well represented, and there are a few pictures that are not tied to one book (e.g. The Source of the Anduin). Some are designed as triptychs with related subjects: in The Designs of Melkor, the central panel showing Melkor on his throne is flanked by paintings of Glaurung and Ungoliant. The most elaborate painting, Frodo’s Memories, is divided into sixty-one scenes laid out so that the story of The Lord of the Rings can be read more or less chapter by chapter and line by line.

Very little is said about Gregory’s working methods other than that he uses oil on canvas. No preliminary drawings or sketches are reproduced, but the last Tolkien work illustrated, a triptych on the story of Beren and Lúthien, is noted as a work in progress. It consists of three elaborately framed landscapes, similar to Gregory’s finished works with characteristic dramatic lighting effects, but with no figures, which leads me to wonder if for at least some pictures Gregory paints the backgrounds first, working out contrasting areas of light and shade and vivid colour to a nearly finished state, then paints the figures over the landscape. I also note many significant differences between The Ride of the Rohirrim as reproduced on the poster I bought and the version in Beyond Time and Place: was one version reworked? and if there are two variant paintings, why are both not included in the book, like the two versions of Death of Boromir?

Alex Lewis has provided a commentary for each Tolkien picture, describing what is going on and often giving a lot of earlier or future story points not present in the picture. Sometimes he quotes short pieces of Tolkien’s text without putting it in quotation marks. He presumably wrote his descriptions in front of the actual pictures (or enlargeable digital images), since he mentions details hardly visible in the book even with a magnifying glass, such as footprints in The Departure of Boromir. The texts for the two versions of Death of Boromir (or the two pictures) seem to be reversed in order.

In some of his commentaries, Lewis compares Gregory’s work with that of other artists, though it is not clear if he considers the similarity as the result of definite influences or chance likenesses. His comparison of The Ride of the Rohirrim with the work of the American Hudson River School is certainly valid. I think it is too strong, however, to say that Bilbo’s Eleventy First Birthday Party is like a Brueghel painting of merry-making peasants. Rather, this work by Gregory merely shares a thematic similarity. Brueghel’s paintings are full of action, with each figure carefully delineated, whereas Gregory’s hobbits are massed in static groups, suffering from the effects of overeating. As for Grond, Lewis finds it ‘reminiscent of the works of John Martin in its intensity and evocation of an apocalyptic scene’, but Martin did not place large figures in the foreground. That comparison is certainly relevant for several other pictures, though, including Khazad-dûm (Gandalf’s battle with the balrog) and Mount Doom (Frodo at the Cracks of Doom). For the latter, Lewis’s comparison to some of the works of Wright of Derby is also relevant.

Anyone who knows the works of the Hudson River School, John Martin, and Wright of Derby will have a good idea of some major aspects of Gregory’s style. One could also make comparisons with the work of Maxfield Parrish, or Roger Garland – in one (Riddles in the Dark), even Tim Kirk – but each viewer may see different analogues, and artists may develop similar styles without being influenced directly. In any case, Gregory likes dramatic and vivid lighting in both landscapes and interiors. His daylight skies are often filled with turbulent clouds casting dramatic shadows on the ground (e.g. both versions of The Source of the Anduin) or with vivid sunsets contrasting with shadowed areas in the foreground (e.g. Grey Havens and Uruk-hai). In several woodland scenes, shafts of sunlight fall through the trees providing dramatic areas of light and shade (e.g. The Departure of Boromir and Fangorn). In Dead Marshes, the moon casts a very cold white light, yet strangely the moon’s pale reflection in one of the pools casts a red light on the kneeling figure of Frodo. Red fire is prominent in many interiors, often casting lurid reflections on surrounding features (e.g. Khazad-dûm). The middle ground of the vault in The Barrow Wight is filled with an unnatural green light, which becomes a sickly pale yellow over the faces of the unconscious hobbits. Indistinct figures and objects in the foreground are silhouetted darkly against this light, though with a reddish glow towards the viewer. In the distance, yellow eyes peer out of shadowy hooded figures.

Gregory’s choices of subjects suggest that he is more attracted to the dramatic possibilities offered by evil beings – orcs, trolls, dragons. Orcs often appear large in the foreground, sometimes depicted in great detail as in Grond and sometimes backlit as in Cirith Ungol and Uruk-hai. The same is true for trolls. Gregory seems to be especially keen on dragons: in the book, they are featured in no fewer than six paintings, in all but one nearly filling the frame. Although some paintings do include dwarves, men, and hobbits in prominent positions, generally the figures are small in scale and do not dominate the picture (e.g. The Departure of Boromir) and are often lit from behind or at an angle so that their faces are unclear or distorted. Elves seldom appear, and always indistinct. Hobbits are prominent in (of course) Bilbo’s Eleventy First Party, but they are an unattractive lot: some have faces which remind me of cartoons, while others look as if they might have orcish blood. So far, to judge from the book, Gregory has generally avoided figures which require nobility or beauty.

Many of the pictures are shown in frames, some quite simple, others very elaborate, all specially designed, ‘a collaboration of craftsman frame-maker, artist and patron’. A frame often reflects the subject of the painting. That for Grond features a display of weapons, armour, chains, dragons, and skulls; that for Khazad-dûm suggests grey stone ‘reflecting . . . the underground world of the Dwarven kingdom’, with carved faces of orcs on the top and side, some looking almost like gargoyles. Orc faces and weapons also frame The Great Goblin. Sometimes Gregory provides an inner painted frame to the picture, usually with a trompe l’oeil effect: rather strangely, Tom Bombadil (Tom and the four hobbits in the foreground of the Forest with Goldberry in the middle distance) is surrounded on three sides by painted orc faces, while its outer frame more appropriately depicts leafy fronds climbing over worn stone pillars at the sides and winding through decorative lunettes at the top. The painted frame for Melkor suggests a wide band of orange stone, partially reflecting red light from the left of the picture, carved with various designs including a crown, dragons, interlace, and, at bottom right, a heap of skulls which continues in three dimensions on the actual frame.

In his foreword, art dealer Peter Nahum, Gregory’s patron, gives a brief account of the project. Unfortunately, he makes some comments which are not quite correct. The Hobbit is hardly ‘a tale of a race of simple folk pitted against mighty forces from hell’ – only one hobbit, not a race, after all, is present at the Battle of Five Armies. Also, as far as I know, Tolkien did not express ‘vocal opposition to Nazism and Fascism’ (emphasis mine), which suggests something more active and public than comments in private letters to his publisher and to his son Christopher.

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