Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Brothers Hildebrandt's Tolkien Calendar 1976

Today, if you asked me who was my favorite Tolkien illustrator, I'd probably say Alan Lee or Angus McBride. But if you asked me who had the greatest effect on how I visualize Tolkien's stories there'd be another answer: the Brothers Hildebrandt. I'd love to say my mental images of LotR come completely from my own imagination and Tolkien's words, but that would be a lie. 

The Brothers Hildebrandt (Greg and Tim) painted three very successful Tolkien calendars back in the seventies ('76,'77, and '78'). To say they helped form my own mental images of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings would be an understatement. By their ubiquity alone they would have impacted me, but many of them are simply downright terrific. To this day some of the Hildebrandts' pictures loom over any rereading I do of Tolkien.

Their paintings are a little more cartoonish than either Lee or McBrides, the former's being more impressionistic, the latter's like the classic illustrators like Pyle and Wyeth. I never particularly liked the thick folds of the Hildebrandts' characters' clothing. Too many of their larger illustrations are static, and look staged and lifeless. Or the pig orcs. Man, do I hate the pig orcs (but the pictures featuring them are sensational, nonetheless).

What the Hildebrandts' art does have is vivacity and, whether bright or dark, bold colors. While Lee's illustrations are washed out and seemingly eroded with age, the Hildebrandts' are sharp and nearly every line clearly delineated. They would also look great on the side of a van or giant black light poster.

Without further ado, here're the pictures from the 1976 Ballantine Tolkien Calendar. '77 and '78 will follow in the next couple of days.

This is the weakest of the three calendars. Still, they made some interesting choices of subjects and all their positive hallmarks are present.

Ok, this is little doofy. But then, Tom's a little doofy.

See the folds of Strider's tunic? Too thick, I tell ya'! But I love his scary hand shadows on the ceiling and the massive size difference between him and the hobbits.

The thoughtful gentleman memoirist amongst the clutter.

I don't love this one. It looks like a weak Maxfield Parrish and Galadriel lacks any of the sort of grave majesty Tolkien ascribes to her.

Pic orcs debut (maybe). Trying to discover the source of this depiction of orcs, it looks as if this might be their first appearance. Gary Gygax attributed some sort of miscommunication with David Sutherland to them looking like this in the original Monster Manual. Still, it illustrates Merry's and Pippin's predicament well.

One of my favorite illustrations of LotR bar none . The description of Minas Tirith floored me when I first read it. Here, presented with little detail, all you can really tell about the city is that's it's built to epic proportions like some wonder of the ancient world.

Don't love this. Treebeard looks way too much like Gilbert Shelton's Phineas Freak.

Nothing to say, really. I like the glassy, oddly carved surface of Orthanc and the official looking pillars and chains surrounding it.

Gollum's a little too cartoony, but Minas Morgul (ne' Ithil) is perfect. Its architecture looks distinctly non-European which is a nice change of pace for fantasy illustrations.

Almost perfect. Eowyn's armor is a little too High Middle Ages instead of Volkswanderung Gothic-cowboy. I love the Witch-King's iron crown and the fell beast. Plus, the cloud filled skies and the shadow covering Eowyn's lower body. Good stuff.

Again, the blue of the sky and the cloud's various colors reminds me of Maxfield Parrish. I don't particularly like this picture. When I wrote some of the Hildebrandts' art was too static, this is a perfect example. While there's movement implied by the leftward sweep of the banner, the characters look like they're holding exaggerated poses they've been asked to hold too long. I'm not sure what Frodo's looking at but I think it's somewhere past Gandalf's waist.

That's Angus McBride's even better Eowyn and the Witch-King on the right. There's a greater sense of motion, Merry's there in the foreground, and the corpses are grimmer looking than in the Hibdebrandt's painting. McBride also does a better job with the armor and putting the white horse on Eowyn's shield. That's something the Hildbrandts got better at doing in their later pictures. 


  1. I could never get passed how static the poses are in the Hildebrandt's artwork. It's a far cry from, say, Frazetta, where it feels like the characters are going to burst out of the canvas.

    Did you ever take a look at Ursharak? The writing is atrocious from the few bits I skimmed, but the paintings that begat the novel is more impressive to me than the Tolkien calendar material.

    1. The static feel of much of their work is definitely my biggest complaint about it. I didn't remember the existence of Ursharak at all until I started tooling around looking for these pictures. I'm actually a little disappointed it's bad, I was half tempted to pick up a copy.

  2. Same with me. I loved the Hildebrandts when I was younger (and just starting to do illustration). You've already pointed out their weaknesses. The last calendar is the strongest, but you didn't post pics from that. Their greatest strength was their sense of lighting and warmth of color that created that dreamy late afternoon other-wordly feel. They learned that mainly from N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish. Looking at some of their work actually makes me happy, as if I were back in the summertime between school years. Alan Lee's work is nice, but it doesn't invoke that feeling. I like John Howe's work a lot. And have you seen Frazetta's LOTR illustrations? They're kind of awesome! I still have the Hildebrandt Brothers' books and calendars, and their work will always have a special place in my heart.

  3. Lee's work is more autumnal and perhaps more appropriate for the books but it doesn't evoke the same feelings (admittedly composed of lots of nostalgia) that the Hildebrandts' does. Howe's work is pretty spectacular but I don't know much about him. As to Frazetta, no, I didn't even know he did Tolkien art. Going to google right now.

  4. Great article thanks for sharing.