I think it must have been back in 1980 when I bought this artbook of the paintings of The Brothers Hildebrandt. I knew of them from the glorious Star Wars painting that they did a few years before- Luke and Leia may not have really looked in the movie anything like how they looked in that painting (I recall something about Carrie Fisher mocking it or being embarrassed about it at the time), but goodness it was a gorgeous painting. I had a print of it up on my bedroom wall, and years later when in sixth form, when I was given an art project to do a self-portrait, I painted the Hildebrandt Star Wars poster with me in Luke Skywalker’s place. One day if ever I find that painting (its around here somewhere) I’ll take a photo of it to give you all something to laugh at. But yeah, I loved that poster of theirs, such an iconic work of art. It kind of captured my childhood image of Star Wars, something the films could never really live up to, but only art could (or the wonderful soundtrack score, which I had on cassette for my 12th birthday). It’s very 1970s, very colourful, bright, very Disco. It’s gorgeous. Its the definitive Star Wars image as seen through the lens of my Childs Eye of the time. I don’t know how true it is, but it was said that they painted that Star Wars poster in just 36 hours. Good grief.
If I remember correctly, I bought the ‘Art of The Brothers Hildebrandt’ around the same time I bought one of the Ballantine artbooks that collected Frank Frazetta paintings. Such collections were quite popular at the time and were feasts for my eyes. The Hildebrandt book was really mouth-watering, as it featured a wide variety of their paintings but most importantly several of the paintings for their Tolkien calendars. I didn’t realise at the time, but it was their three Tolkien calendars that ‘put them on the map’ so to speak, made them hugely famous (and rich, possibly, but that I don’t really know), and led to that iconic Star Wars poster that I so loved.
The Brothers Hildebrandt – Greg and Tim Hildebrandt- were twins; it was said back then that their work was so alike that you could not tell where ones brush stokes ended and the others’ began. This was just publicity nonsense, as it turned out, but it was taken as fact for many years. The fact that the two bearded twins -they always looked like wild hippies to me in pictures-could create such remarkable artwork so seamlessly together was something that fascinated me. Usually artists styles were so very different -at school the drawings and paintings my mates and I did looked so very different to each others, it would be impossible for any of us to work together on a painting. I could not imagine how two people could work on a painting like the Brothers Hildebrandt did. They were twins, they were great artists, they worked together- it seemed the stuff of magic. I notice I write in the past tense; one of the brothers, Tim, died in 2006. Greg still paints, far as I know (he must be in his early or mid-seventies now) but the Brothers Hildebrandt are no more.
Recently I came across this amazing book, ‘The Tolkien Years of the Brothers Hildebrandt’ which as its title suggests collects all of the paintings from those three calendars with lots of preliminary artwork, sketches and photos the artists took for reference. It’s a wonderful book. As I never had any of the actual Tolkien calendars, the only paintings from those calendars I had were in that original artbook published in 1979, so there are many paintings in this book that are new to me. It is especially interesting to see these paintings in light of the Peter Jackson films that came out several years ago (indeed, I believe this new edition of this book was issued to tie-in with the release of The Hobbit movie). The paintings by the Hildebrandt brothers show a very, well, 1970s vision of LOTR, a richly-coloured, fairy-tale vision quite at odds with the toned-down, rather realistic approach that the movies took. It would be erroneous of me to suggest that they are closer to the true ‘vision’ of Tolkien, but I do feel that they capture a magical, bold, colourful LOTR that the films failed to. These are more Classical, almost medieval images, more akin to the Golden Age of Disney Animation than the films that Peter Jackson made. There is much of the original Disney Snow White movie, and Pinnochio and the Fantasia film, in these paintings. Much of this was intentional, as that was the style they were aiming for. To be honest, when I looked at those paintings back in 1980, it was a time that the LOTR books were still unfilmable- the images could only possibly exist in painted form, as the technology simply was not there to make a ‘proper’ LOTR film. Even those wizards of ILM would be unable to bring it to life in any way like the Hildebrandt paintings did.
The painting above, of Eowyn fighting the Nazgul, was always one of my favourites of the Tolkien paintings the Hildebrandt brothers did. Something about it was utterly arresting. Somehow it always seemed to capture the fantastic nature of the Tolkien books, the way the artists captured the play of the light, how it symbolised the goodness and purity of Eowyn against the depravity of the agent of Mordor. I used to look at that painting and imagine it coming to life, like a movie in my head. The actual movies wouldn’t come until a quarter-century later, and even then they could never quite capture the magic of the Hildebrandt paintings.
There is a wonderful timelessness and sense of Classical Reality to the best of the Hildebrandt Tolkien art. Larger than life, utterly fantastic. Golden shafts of light, Godlike- almost Bibilical indeed. The figures were realistic (the brothers worked from photos they took of family and friends posing to match preliminary sketches) but the magical play of light, and the rich golden colours, the deep, velvety blues, all worked to create a playful, almost hypnotic fairy-tale aspect to the paintings. A fantastic reality perhaps. Or Disney for grown-ups. I don’t know; it just seemed that no-one could quite capture that golden, fantastic light like the Hildebrandts did. It was totally at odds with the grim, brutal art that Frank Frazetta had created for the REH covers. Not better, necessarily – certainly I doubt for all their ability the twins could have matched Frazetta’s REH stuff but likewise I doubt that Frazetta could have pictured Tolkien as well as they. One was fantasy, the other Sword & Sorcery. I rather think that Peter Jackson’s movies made a deliberate decision to meld the two approaches, funnily enough. I would love to have seen LOTR movies that looked as fantastic and colourful as the Hildebrant paintings. Maybe they would have looked camp and silly and have been laughed at by Joe Public, but goodness what amazing movies they might have been.
‘The Tolkien Years of the Brothers Hildebrandt’ is a fantastic book. With commentary by Gregory Hildebrandt Jr, who was five back when the first paintings were created in 1975 and was the reference for the Hobbits featured in them, the book is full of nice anecdotes and wonderful sketches and photographs. The sketches in particular are so detailed and wonderfully drawn, some of them are better than the paintings. Its all a fine insight into the creative process of those works of art. The book can be easily purchased on Amazon, and is worth every penny. I do find it interesting, albeit likely totally coincidental, that the recent first film of The Hobbit trilogy seemed to have a bit of that certain fairy-tale, golden light in its cinematography, which reminded me of the Hildebrandt touch when I saw it at the cinema.