Tolkien's fantasy world goes on show in Gruyères

A Hobbit dwelling. John Howe

The medieval castle of Gruyères is perhaps the ideal setting for an exhibition on the magic universe of Tolkien as seen through the eyes of artist John Howe.

This content was published on October 3, 2003 minutes

Swiss-based Howe is the visual designer of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and he created the illustrations on view before, during and after his work on the movies.

Visitors to the exhibition who have seen the first two films – the third is due for release in December – will be struck by the resemblance between Howe’s pictures and what appears on the screen.

With an associate, Alan Lee, he was responsible for creating the settings, characters and costumes brought to life in director Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the novels.

Born in Vancouver, Canada in 1957, Howe began drawing at an early age and says he cannot remember ever not drawing. After graduating from high school he studied in Strasbourg, France.

“My first years in Europe were a constant overdose of all forms of art and architecture,” Howe told swissinfo.

“I was about 12 when I first read Tolkien, and it was a totally catastrophic experience.

“I couldn’t wait for the first volume of the trilogy to be available at the local library so I started with the second. That is not to be recommended.”

Life in images

But he persevered, and not surprisingly for someone “who sees everything in visual terms” became hooked on the books.

Howe, who now lives with his family in Neuchâtel, went on to make a career as an artist, and as well as his work on their cinema versions is also responsible for the paintings on the covers of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books and for Tolkien calendars.

He says he finds it difficult to talk about the films because of his close involvement in them but admits it was a moving experience to be present on the set.

“It was great, but all conscious thought sort of disappeared because we were working so hard. When you’re working at drawing for 12 hours a day it’s very difficult to maintain a level of creativity.”


Howe, whose film work proves he was up to the challenge, is full of praise for director Peter Jackson.

“I was blown away by Peter’s work,” he said. “He’s a fabulous filmmaker and one of his strengths was to propose a vision which is quite personal.”

Howe, who recently finished work on another Hollywood project – he’s unable to give details yet – says he is delighted with the setting for his exhibition.

“I love this medieval castle on a hill,” he said. “There’s a quality to the light around here which is quite exceptional.”

The exhibition is in the Château de Gruyères – in canton Fribourg – until November 9.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson in Gruyères

Key facts

John Howe was born in Vancouver in 1957.
He began drawing as a young child and first read Tolkien at the age of 12.
After high school graduation in Canada he studied in Strasbourg and at the French Ecole des Art Decoratifs.
As well as his work on their cinema versions Howe is also responsible for the paintings on the covers of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books and for Tolkien calendars.
He lives with his family in the Swiss city of Neuchâtel.

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