August 06 Featured Artist: Barbara Remington



Connecting with History

An Interview with Barbara Remington
By N Marion Hage
 
Some think I need an intervention. I confess; I’m an avowed Ringnut. “What kind of nut?” you question. For the uninitiated, I’m referring to one of those odd people that love anything associated with J.R.R Tolkien’s stories about the ring of power. If you don’t know who Tolkien is, you might as well skip to the interview.
 
I’ve watched Lord of the Rings at least once a month for the past three years, and read The Silmarillion from cover to cover twice. I won’t bore you further about my Tolkien book collection, because unless you’re a Ringnut like me, you won’t recognize the names.
 
My interview with Barbara Remington is special for a variety of reasons. If nothing else, her name is forever connected with Ring Lore, as the illustrator of the first authorized U.S editions of The Hobbit, as well as all three The Lord of the Rings books for Ballantine Book Co. In this interview Barbara Remington sets the record straight concerning the unique circumstances surrounding the cover art of four of the most beloved books ever written.  
 
Barbara is charming; a soft-spoken woman who presents as the kind of comfortably warm-soul you’d love talking with over a cup of tea. Her fascinating history unfolds one leaf at a time, and the interviewer got a sense I was standing on the edge of a treasure vault, peering at secrets known by only a few.
 
Where to start, and which trail do you follow with someone who has stories of famous names, places, and events all weaving together into a portrait of an artist’s life? Barbara lived in New York’s East Village at a pivotal time in history. Some would call this a turning point. The Village was the East Coast’s version of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury District, where a Bohemian subculture of artists, poets, philosophers, musicians and actors came together. Poetry readings drew big name poets and equally big-named audiences.     
 
I teased Barbara about a recent incident in which she went to an art show and asked a young artist to remove his shirt in order to view his tattoos. “He’s such a handsome man, and I really loved his art work. I was also fascinated by his tattoos and asked him if he’d remove his shirt to let me take a better look. He has very nice skin color.”
 
I teased her, “That is just so vintage East Village. When I heard that, I knew right away you were an artist.”
 
She agreed with a laugh. This artist also happens to be my twenty-four year old son, David, who introduced me to Barbara. “He not only took off his shirt, which he painted, but he gave it to me to keep and I have it hanging on my wall.”
 
David is very fond of Barbara, and told how she offered her coat in exchange for his shirt, but he refused to take it.  
 
“Barbara Remington, you are so much more than an artist/illustrator, you’re a part of history. I heard you knew a number of famous names synonymous with change and innovation, and some controversy as well.”
 
“In the sixties I lived in New York’s East Village, a haven for starving artists, musicians, poets, and philosophers of that time. Such friends had a sort of professional respect for each other. We’d pass each other in the street, and recognize each other. Regardless of the kind of art, there was an acknowledgement that the other existed. I was friends with poets and musicians, not necessarily rock musicians.”
 
“I heard you knew Timothy Leary, the famed psychedelic philosopher. What was he like?”
 
“Well, I didn’t know Timothy all that well, though I did know him. Actually, I was very good friends with his wife. Timothy didn’t really talk to me about his philosophical views. The things I remember were incidental things like him helping me sort through fabrics for the crafts I was doing.”
 
“I also heard you were friends with the famed poet Allen Ginsberg. Were you a fan of poetry?”
 
“Yes, I love poetry. Allen was very sweet. When he would see me walking down the street, he would take my arm and guide me to wherever he was going to do a reading, and sit me in the front row. Allen always had passion in his voice when reciting his poetry. Of course most of his poetry can be described as passionate.”
 
“Do you recall any other moments you’d like to share about Allen Ginsberg?”
 
“I remember one time where we were all in a room, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Peter Orlovsky, and a musician friend named Denise. We were all sitting together smoking a joint, and Allen Ginsberg was quoting Bob Dylan lyrics. Right now that memory seems rather surreal, but it happened.
 
For those uninitiated, that was rarified poetic air. Barbara said, “I was friends with a number of famous poets. Gregory Corso and Simon Petet would stop by. I was close friends with Ira Cohen. They weren’t all friends of each other, but most of them knew each other.”  
 
Barbara Remington was known for her cover art, but she also did work for newspapers and magazines. Some might not know she did the Illustrations for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She recalls, “The editor asked me to make every edition seem as if done by a different artist.”  In addition she designed costumes for a number of plays at the Gateway Theatre, including for E. E. Cummings, and did window displays for Saks Fifth Avenue. She laughs, “I did window displays for Saks, but I wasn’t a starving artist. I didn’t have much money, but lived at an amazingly luxurious level. I ushered at Carnegie Hall to see free shows, and worked on a yacht to go on free trips to Martha’s Vineyard. It was a great deal of fun.”
 
After our wonderful stroll through the sixties, our conversation turned to the Lord of the Rings, and the cover art for books that are now etched in the fabric of history.
 
First, let me set one thing straight, Barbara Remington is a true Lord of the Ring fan. She’s read each book many times, and loves them all. “People wouldn’t know this; but I’ve done many sketches and illustrations related to the story, and wanted to put them in a book, but never got licensing permission.”
 
I asked about the story behind her cover art. “I worked for Ballantine, and as a practice, always read the books before doing the artwork. I didn’t have this luxury with the Tolkien Books, something I wish I could have changed. Ballantine Books was in a hurry to get these books out right away. When they commissioned me to do the artwork, I didn’t have the chance to see either book, so I didn’t know what they were about. I tried finding people that read them, but the books were not available in the states, and so, I had sketchy information at best.”
 
She laughs about the story behind the picture for The Hobbit which includes a Fruit Tree and Lion. She says, “When Tolkien saw the Fruit Tree, he asked, “What are pumpkins doing in a tree? Of course they weren’t pumpkins, but he wasn’t sure what they were. I laughed, but understood he’d want the picture to reflect what was in his books. He was especially perplexed about the lion on the cover, because there are no lions in the story. He requested that Ballantine remove the lions from the cover, so they painted them over for later books. The earliest books were released with the lion covers.” We laughed about the collector value of the “Lion Books.”
 
Barbara took this all in stride. It was just how things were done at the time, and something that couldn’t be changed. “Nobody was aware of what was happening, or the magnitude of these books, or the impact they would have.”
 
Now, as a Tolkien fan, she says, “If I’d had the time to actually read the books first, which was my habit to do, I’d have definitely drawn different pictures. I’m a big Tolkien fan, and love these books, having read them many times. I’ve done many fantasy covers, and always read the books first.”
 
 She says, “After reading his work, I was in awe of Tolkien. I knew there was something special about him. If I read The Lord of the Rings first, I don’t think I could have drawn the cover art.”
 
Why not?”  I asked in curiosity.
 
“I’d have felt intimidated. These books were so special, I would have perhaps felt overwhelmed,” she said, speaking of J.R.R Tolkien with utmost fondness. 
 
Barbara explained the craziness surrounding the release of the Lord of the Rings books. “Ace books released an unauthorized edition of Fellowship of the Rings, without Tolkien’s permission. There were some questionable copy laws that weren’t universally accepted. Ballantine bought the rights to the three books from Tolkien, and wanted to beat Ace before they had a chance to release the second two books of the series. So Ballantine authorized the release of all three books at once. This was unheard of. They came to me saying, “We want you to draw all three cover pictures now.” And this was sight unseen.”  
 
She was put back in the same place she had been with The Hobbit, having the pressure to draw blind without seeing either book, “There wasn’t any time. They wanted them right away, and I had to draw all the covers at once.”
 
Barbara shared this little secret. “If you look at the art of the three books it’s really one big picture. Hold the covers next to each other, and fold them back just so, and you’ll see.”
 
“You didn’t draw three separate pictures?”
 
“No, it was one picture which was divided and used for the three books.”
 
I mention how such news might drive up the value of these books on EBay? We shared a laugh.

N Marion Hage is an Assistant Editor at andwerve.

The first copies I had of

The first copies I had of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were Ballantine's Editions with BRem's art. I noticed at once that the three covers all made one picture and I was ecstatic when I found the triple poster mural (shown in your article). It was on my wall in college and beyond but eventually got rolled up in it's original tube and put away for close to thirty years. Last week, after thinking about it for years, I got it out and got it framed and just tonight I put it up in my den. Then I got on line to find out if BRem was Barbara Remington as I seemed to recall. Presto! There's your interview. I love the net as much as I love Tolkien's work. Please inform Ms. Remington that this simple book-art print still has loyal fans and maintains it's striking impact.

Your request

Thank you for your comments. I passed on your message to Barbara through a mutual friend. I'm sure she will appreciate what you've written. I also asked Barbara to share some fascinating stories about her life as an artist (in the day). Today's young artists don't realize the kinds of obsticles and restrictions faced by artists in previous generations. Dealing with societal prejudice in the Old South...etc. She has shared fascinating annecdotes with me, but these are her stories to tell. I've invited her to do so, and will post an addendum in the future.

Dear Secret- Re: Dave and Barbara

The benefit of the ezine is that articles need never end. Writers can follow the interest of the readers in realtime as time permits. I'll relate your comments to the Barbara Remington story since Dave is a part of the story. Barbara and Dave continue writing each other. He is part of a network of artists that send small pieces of art back and forth, and he's gotten her into it. Dave's future looks pretty bright if people like Barbara take interest in him. Now that it's come up, I think the topic of mail-art would be a fascinating topic for the future. From what I hear some pretty impressive artists are playing the game.

So... when are you going to

So... when are you going to do an interview with David and showcase HIS work? Even those lovely tatoos ;) A definite admirer....

Thanks for the interview!

Just a quick note to say "thank-you" for the great interview! New information on this talented artist has been hard to come by in the last few years, and it was a joy hear her reminisce about the past. As far as a personal connection, I was quite fortunate to acquire a near-pristine copy of the 40 year-old, massive 6'x3' poster a few years ago. After quite an expensive frame-job, it now proudly hangs in my bedroom and is the first thing I see everyday when I awake. So many thanks, Barbara, and to you for the terrific article!

Thanks for the interview

I loved the covers of the original Ballantine paperbacks of LoTR. I bought the books when they came out and I still have them. I thought it was so clever that if you put all the books together the covers formed one picture.

It's funny that Barbara never read the books before illustrating the covers. I thought that the covers reflected someone who had a deep understanding of the atmosphere of the story. ;-)

I second the idea of publishing a book of her other LoTR illustrations. There would be a lot of interest in it if publicised correctly.

terrific interview, but...

loved the interview, but when you write an article like this don't you check your spelling??? SAKS FIFTH AVENUE NOT Sachs! CARNEGIE HALL, not Carnegy! and, as a previous poster noted: BALLANTINE, not Balentine!

Great job, oh and "Ballantine"

Thanks for the wonderful interview Marion. I've posted it over on http://tolkiennews.net as I'm sure many purists will enjoy the fact that Mrs. Remington ended up reading the books and becoming a fan.

I'm rather a stickler on spelling but I thought I'd point out that the correct spelling is "Ballantine" not "Balentine".

Also, does Mrs. Remington have an email or similar contact information available? I'm specifically interested in her unpublished illustrations/sketches as I'm sure many fans would be interested in seeing them.

Thanks!

Unpublished illustrations/sketches- spelling errors

So sorry for the spelling errors. I've been burning candles at both ends for the past few months and my attention span is that of a gnat. (Sorry Nate) Mrs Remington doesn't have an email. We've become fast friends and I can call her and ask about Tolkien related illustrations and sketches. I do have her "non-Tolkien" storybook type sketches I could pass on, and Andwerve may still have copies if you ask Nate.

Thanks

Thanks for the reply; if you could ask about her Tolkien related illustrations/sketches that would be fantastic! I'll keep an eye on the site for any future Tolkien-related artists. Keep up the great work!

Remington Art

I would think that Harper Collins would jump at the offer of putting out a calendar of Remington art! That might not be as great as having a book of Barbara's Tolkien art out, but it still be something. I'm sure something could be done - after all, the Tolkien Estate hates the Hildebrandt art but Spiderweb Art Gallery still manages to put out calendars - plus there have been "Hobbit" calendars put out over the years (sorry I can't remember the publisher or artist at the moment!) recently. I think the hang up is in naming the images not in the images themselves. Point Barbara to Running Press - they have put out similar stuff. Something could be done with just a little effort. Plus the images could be put out on the internet over at the Rolozo page on the One Ring at: http://fan.theonering.net/rolozo/news Loved the article! Love the artist! Thanks

Barbara's art

I called Barbara this morning to see how she was holding up with this heat wave. I brought up the art issue, and it seems tolkien sketches are not available, but related art is available* (See note below) You might find this interesting. She approached "Ballantine" years ago- I hope I got it right this time or at least closer (laughs)- about doing a book she mysteriously called "The Fourth Book" It was a book filled with illustrations of the Lord of the Rings characters. She wouldn't say it was about LOTR and wouldn't name them in the book. She figured the fans would know what it was, but Ballantine wasn't interested. But that was then. I told her they'd likely go for it today because all things Tolkien are "hot" I'd even gone so far as to contact an entertainment Lawyer I knew who worked for the Tolkien Estate. He said it was a longshot the Estate would go for it even now, even if fans did want it.(go figure) He was kind enough to offer to link me with a higher up, but Barbara's not really interested now. She's feeding the Hummingbirds. * Here's a link to some of Barbara's illustrations. http://www.artistsforart.com/shows/2005July_BR/thework.html If you click on the pictures twice they can be enlarged. Note the Soft Sculptures below. They are listed as NFS- not for sale- however, I think she's willing to part with them for the right price if some collector is interested. This is a Tolkien Chess Set she made long ago. The Black King is Sauron. Shelob is the Black Queen. The white pawns are hobbits and the black pawns are Orcs. I'm not sure if all the pieces are there. There's a Gandalf and Ringwraith as well. If you need to contact me, email Nate or Renee at Andwerve and they'll give you my email. N Marion Hage

BREM Signature of LOTR artwork

Hello: I have a near mint condition LOTR mural poster based on her original artwork that I would like to ask Barbara Remington to Autograph for me. Is this a possibility and if so how would I go about sending it to her. It is rolled and stored in a tube at this time. I am located in Maine. I loved the interview. William Brehm

Hi William

Hi William, I just wanted you to know I saw your post. I'm not sure how to go about that? You might try the link to the AFA gallery (Artists For Art) in Scranton Pa, and sending them an email with your question. http://afa.jgrabowski.com/contact-info/ You could email them and ask them if they'd be willing to work something out? Obviously, there are risks inherent in mailing anything of value. Just a note for those looking on. The Chess Set pieces on the AFA site say "Not for sale"- but they are now. If anyone makes an offer, I can pass it on. Timeline- they were made just after the books were released.