Journée de l'Architecture et de l'Urbanisme - Neuchâtel ON FRI, MAY 10 2019 At the Patinoires du Littoral
In Neuchâtel

John Howe

Born in 1957 in Vancouver, grew up in British Columbia.
Studied at the Ecoles des Arts Décoratifs de Strasbourg. Lives in Switzerland as a freelance illustrator, with wife Fataneh (also an illustrator), and son Dana (who knows what he will be, but he does play awfully good classical guitar).

On the living room wall there was a pencil rendering of the Castle of Chillon, near Lake Geneva, done by my grandmother at age 19, before she embraced the more acceptable career of schoolmistress and never did another picture in her life…

I can’t remember ever not drawing. My mother would do her best to help with the more ambitious renderings, but around primary school age, her draughtsmanship was no longer up to my expectations. I remember bursting into tears of frustration when we both failed to draw a cow the way I wanted.

School itself was a mixed blessing; it seemed we always moved house at just the wrong time of the year, and l ended up in power mechanics, hating every minute, because naturally, all the non-academics too dull even for metal shop were already parked in art class… It was a handy skill in biology, though, where a friend and I would do rapid and rather creative rendering of microscopic water organisms for richer but less artistic classmates… at 50 cents a shot.

I collected paperbacks for the covers, and even read what was inside. Frank Frazetta assumed demigod status, and was the object of dozens of copies in oil pastel. This was before the Ballantine editions, so his paintings were only available on book covers. No musty second-hand paperback pile went unturned. Around the same time, Barry Smith’s Conan and Bemi Wrightson’s Swamp Thingmeant going into drugstores where I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew, buying kid’s comics too far into adolescence.

Around that time I read The Lord of the Rings, first The Two Towers, and then The Return of the King. It seemed that everyone who started the first volume never got any further, as it was by far the most borrowed of the three. I had to wait months to get it. The real spark came from the calendars, which showed me that it could be illustrated. I went through the Hildebrandt calendar, doing my own versions of the same scenes. Mercifully, none of these have survived, although there is a very dusty box under a bed somewhere…

A year after graduating from high school, I was in a college in Strasbourg, France, and the following year in the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs.

The first year was spent not understanding much, the second at odds with what I did manage to understand, and the third eager to get out, although in retrospect I certainly owe whatever clarity of thought I possess to the patience of the professor of Illustration.

Otherwise, my first years in Europe were a constant overdose on all forms of art and architecture, everything being simultaneously ancient and novel. All that catching up to do. Nothing I did from those years has survived, thank goodness, as scrupulously put it all in the trash at term end before heading back home to the summer job that would pay next year’s fees. The only exception must be “The Lieutenant of the Black Tower of Barad-dûr”, which, if not my first published piece, must certainly be the earliest.

It seems to me that a lot of my early commissions were nightmares – political cartoons, magazine illustrations, comics, animated films, advertising – starting one cover seven times, redoing sketches so many times there was nothing of mine left in them, wondering just how the devil I’d ended up in this profession. In the attic there is a huge box taped very tightly shut and marked DO NOT OPEN (EVER!!!) in wide-tip felt pen. I honestly feel no real urge to do so.

The other day we took a friend to visit the Castle of Chillon. It’s easy enough to find the spot to stand in my grandmother’s drawing. I wonder if we ever really make any choices of our own – so many years and miles to end up in a picture that was always there on the wall.

Showing off - Personal exhibitions

Any gallery show means going out on a limb, sometimes with confidence, sometimes with trepidation.
For an illustrator, it is a way of bypassing the otherwise mandatory transition through publishing, restoring a geographical sense to the work, adding motivation. (Which means basically, that you have to get out of the house and go see it…) All in all, it puts people back in the picture, and no longer the largely abstract public that one devines behind sales figures and royalty statements. It’s the pleasure of chance encounters, the satisfaction of actually seeing one’s own work in a frame on a wall. It’s a privileged moment.

  • Galerie Librairie La Marge, Lausanne, (Switzerland) December 1983
  • The Pendragon Gallery, Annapolis, Maryland, August 1991
  • Festival de la Bande Dessinée de Sierre, Sierre (Switzerland) June 1995
  • La Bibliothèque des Jeunes, Le Locle (Switzerland) Oct/Nov 1995
  • Librairie-Galerie Repères et Merveilles, Bienne (Switzerland) 1995
  • Festival du Livre de la Jeunesse, Troyes, (France) September 1996
  • Galerie Ziggourat, Brussels, 1997
  • Musee des Beaux-Arts du Locle, Le Locle (Switzerland) May 3 to June 22, 1997
  • John Howe/Images de Tolkien:
    1. November 7 to December 30, 1995 – Médiathèque de Saint-Herblain (Nantes)
    2. January 17 to March 9, 1996 – Les Silos, Chaumont
    3. March 22 to April 21, 1996 – Maison du Boulanger, Troyes
    4. September 19 to October 26, 1996 – Médiathèque d’Epernay
    5. January 9 to February 7, 1997 – École des Arts Décoratifs de Strasbourg
    6. February 25 to March 22, 1997 – Médiathèque de Sedan
    7. April 1 to 13,1997 – Revin (Association Lire Malgré Tout)
    8. April 30 to May 4, 1997 – Salon International du Livre et de la Presse, Geneva
    9. September 20 to October 19 and November 19 to December 28, 1997 – La Maison d’Ailleurs, Yverdon-les- Bains (Switzerland)
    10. October 24 to November 16 1997- L’Epée d’Eowyn/Rencontres Tolkien, Sierrre (Switzerland)
  • Ecailles, Ailes, Griffes et Feu/Illustrations for A Diversity of Dragons – La Maison d’Ailleurs, Yverdon-les- Bains (Switzerland) October 21 to November 16, 1997
  • Librarie La Bulle – Fribourg (Switzerland) November 24 to December 15, 2000
  • Les Etonnants Voyageurs – Saint-Malo (France) May 2001
  • Lucca Comics and Games – Lucca (Italy) 2001
  • John HOWE/ Sur les Terres de Tolkien
    1. September 27 to October 2002 – Médiathèque le l’Agglomeration Troyenne, Troyes
    2. October 30 to November 3, 2002 – Utopiales (Festival International de Sciènce-Fiction de Nantes), Nantes
    3. November 29 to December 1, 2002 – Festival Rifl Act Fiction, Lyon
    4. December 10, 2002 to January 11, 2003 – Canadian Cultural Center, Paris
    5. March 29 to April 5, 2003 – Rencontres Tolkien, Bibliothèque de l’Université Rennes 2, Campus Villejean, Rennes, France
    6. May 6 to 31, 2003 – Bibliothèque Municipale, Charleville-Mézières, France
    7. July 1 to 7, 2003 – Neuchâtel International Fantasy Film Festival, (Theatre du Passage), Neuchâtel, Switzerland
    8. September 29 to November 9, 2003 – Gruyères, (Gruyères Castle), Switzerland
    9. January 3 to 25, 2004 – Médiatheque, Annecy, France
    10. February 7 to 28, 2004 – Médiatheque, Châlons-en-Champagne, France
    11. March 9 to 27, 2004 – Médiatheque, Saint-Nazaire, France
  • John Howe: Lord of the Brush / Le Seigneur des Pinceaux
    1. Embassy of Canada Prince Takamado Gallery, Tokyo – February 27 to March 31, 2006
  • John Howe: Périples en Terre du Milieu, Médiathèque de Bourgoin-Jallieu, Bourgoin-Jallieu, France – April 17 to May 12, 2007
  • John Howe 2007: Saint-Ursanne La Fantastique, Saint-Ursanne, Switzerland – June 23 to September 2, 2007 (Exhibitions, concerts, conferences, installations, etc.)

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.

Alan Lee

  • On friday, May 10 2019
  • at the Patinoires du Littoral
  • in 2000 Neuchâtel

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