Before Peter Jackson’s movies, the visual identity of Lord of the Rings was the territory of artists and animators. And few created a vision so iconic, and so loosely related to the actual books, as Barbara Remington.
Now, at the age of 90, the well-loved illustrator has passed away. As reported by the New York Times, the illustrator, who did paperback cover art for Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books as well as The Hobbit, died in late January due to breast cancer. She was 90 years old.
As the story goes, Remington created hand-drawn illustrations for the paperback versions of Tolkien’s classics published by Ballantine Books. She did so, however, without having actual read the books. And as the New York Times recounts, quoting old interviews with the artist, Tolkien was not a big fan of them, requesting certain elements removed, like a lion that featured on one of the covers. (There are, it seems, no lions in Middle Earth.)
But it’s easy to see why these caught on, and were later collected and sold as a poster. They’re equal parts whimsical and full of dread, not capturing very much at all about what Middle Earth must have actually looked like but digging heavily into how they felt, even by accident. The slow change in colour scheme from the first book to the third, the animal motifs that grow increasingly dreadful, the swirling fire in the sky. It all feels like Middle Earth coming to an end, even if it doesn’t look anything like it.
Remington went on to do illustrations for other books, but this work, as one of the first people to give Tolkien’s words art that suited them, is what stands out as her legacy. And what a marvellous legacy it is.