Imagined history: An interview with Stephen Walsh
“The larger the amount of reality in a picture the more successful the fantastical elements will be.”
Stephen Walsh has brought his own distinctive style to Tolkien illustration. He has illustrated a variety of books and games, including the award winning Settlers of Catan. His projects include many Tolkien-inspired watercolours such as Barad-dûr and Spiders and Flies for the Middle Earth Collectable Card game by Iron Crown Enterprises. The acclaimed Italian exhibition Images of Middle Earth also featured several of Stephen’s Tolkien pieces. The Journal interviewed him about his range of work.
Stephen, when you studied art you completed your final project on The Mermaid, based upon a book by Rosemary Sutcliffe, under the supervision of Alan Lee. How did this come about and what was the appeal of its subject?
My tutor, Keith Bowen shared an agent with Alan Lee and he arranged it and Alan Lee picked the subject matter. It is a subject that I would like to return to – it’s a Cornish fairytale and the Celtic Twilight theme appeals to me.
What have been the main influences on your work?
When I was younger I was very influenced by Alan Lee and the work of Berni Wrightson, Michael Kaluta, and the pre Raphaelites: John William Waterhouse and Edward Burne-Jones. I am fortunate to live a short drive away from Manchester City Art Gallery and there are many great Pre-Raphaelite works in their collection; particular favourites are Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs and Arthur Hughes’ Ophelia.
How did you progress to fantasy art and historical illustration?
The first work I did was educational work for museums and children’s books, but I always wanted to do fantasy work. A friend sent some of my work over to TSR and I had a piece published in Dragon Magazine. I then started looking for further work in fantasy and got in touch with ICE. They commissioned my first set of Tolkien illustrations. Soon after they commissioned a lot more work including the Galadriel jigsaw. My wife encouraged me to approach Osprey publishing due to my interest in history and this has proved the perfect job for me.
When did you first get interested in Tolkien’s work?
I read Tolkien at Art College coming to it through an interest in British myths and legends, including King Arthur. My interest in this type of subject has grown the older I have got.
As an artist, what do you think of Tolkien’s own illustrations?
They have a quirky charm which is very individual; a graphic feel, perfect for publication.
Elements of your Tolkien-inspired illustrations seem to be partly based on real places. What are some of the places that you find are particularly evocative of Tolkien’s created world?
I take inspiration from the landscape around me. The Shire is quintessentially rural Britain and I am lucky to live in one of the most scenic areas: The Cheshire Peak District. The Cheshire countryside and particularly the National Trust’s escarpment and woodland at Alderley Edge are a constant source of inspiration to me. The stream in the Healing of Nimrodel is based on a stream at nearby Adlington Hall. By locating a scene in a real landscape I am better able to imagine fantasy elements.
I approach my paintings in the same way as Tolkien approached his writing, in that I try to picture Europe in an alternative Early Middle Ages. Therefore, the Shire is like a medieval English shire county, I picture Rohirrim as the Steppe, the inhabitants like Cossacks, while I imagine Minas Tirith as a rich Eastern culture like Byzantium. The use of different locations and cultures helps create a sense of the diversity of Middle-earth.
I use the pathetic fallacy frequently in my artwork. The weather mirrors the events and emotions portrayed. In Marsh Drake the flat humid sky creates an oppressive atmosphere. In Slayer the looming sky prefigures war. The ever changing, dramatic skies of the Cheshire Plain provide plenty of inspiration for my artwork.
Do you intended to extend the range of your Tolkien-based illustrations?
Given the opportunity I would like to illustrate more Tolkien. I’d like to have another go at an Ent or one of the big battle scenes. I have a sketch for another large triptych based on the Grey Haven and a sketch based on The Silmarillion which I’d like to develop further.
Has your interest in historical illustration illuminated for you the importance of imagined history in Tolkien?
Tolkien asked what if the world that was imagined in the Middle Ages had a reality? This is what I try to answer with my paintings.
In order to make fantasy art work, I always try to base it in history. I approach fantasy illustrations in the same way that I approach my historical pieces for Osprey. I like armour and weapons to look functional; this makes them more convincing. The larger the amount of reality in a picture the more successful the fantastical elements will be.
What is the Settlers of Catan game and what has been your involvement in it?
The Settlers of Catan is a very popular German board game. It is based around settlement and building a society. People are very fanatical about playing it. I designed the first American version and all the first American expansions. As one of the bestselling games in the United States, it helped take my work to a wider audience.
What do you consider to be the best Tolkien-related games?
I sometimes play the Lord of the Rings Conquest for the Xbox but I’m not a big game player. It’s the historical and story telling aspects of Tolkien’s work that interest me most.
What is the Middle-earth Collectable card game by the renowned Iron Crown Enterprises?
It’s a role playing game which is no longer in production, based upon a set of cards. It’s still got a strong following, because it’s such a good game.
Take us through one of your Tolkien-inspired illustrations, perhaps Carn Dum.
Carn Dum was originally published by Iron Crown Enterprises it was then taken up by HarperCollins for their Lord of the Rings Postcard Book. It depicts the Witch King at his capital Angmar. The imposing oriental tower in background is based upon Tibetan monasteries, looming high above the mists. The inspiration for the Witch King’s armour comes from Medieval Gothic armour complete with great helm. His pose is commanding, a monarch surveying his realm. In this composition, the Witch King’s form is echoed by the imposing tower behind him. The clouds massing over the clear sky, are intended to give the idea of an encroaching evil, the situation is mirrored in the weather.
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