Ruth Lacon has had an interest in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien since her Edinburgh childhood in Scotland, and managed the unusual feat of reading the Silmarillion when aged 12. Ruth joined the Tolkien Society in 1986 whilst at university, and has been a member ever since, contributing articles and artwork to the Society’s publications. She holds two degrees, a B.Sc. (Hons) in Zoology from Aberdeen and a B.A. in Design (Illustration) from the University of Wales. Ruth has produced many works of art inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, some of which are featured in her published book, The Art of Ruth Lacon. She also writes scholarly papers on J.R.R. Tolkien. Ruth also writes non-Tolkien based fiction, and creates paintings inspired by a range of myths and legends.
A Word from Ruth
Art for me started with stories in landscape, stories which even as a child inspired me to draw. I was introduced to real folktales even before I could read, by my maternal grandfather. Grandad never claimed to be a ‘traditional storyteller’ – but he certainly was one. I fell in love with JRR Tolkien’s work as the writing of one of only a few modern authors who, for me, matched the qualities of the old tales and legends with their new stories. All the time, though, I have been just as interested in those old tales. Exploring this world of stories is a constant source of delight and inspiration. The old tales come in so many versions, each illuminating some fresh aspect of the story. Some tales are so well-known that almost anyone might recognise a painting of them, and the challenge is to find something different to say. Other tales are so forgotten that to paint them is like working on an archaeological excavation, revealing the fragments of a lost world.
I trained as an illustrator when I took my second degree, and the idea of art-as-narrative appealed powerfully to me. I sometimes think I must have inherited storytelling somehow because that’s how I like to work. The narrative may be completely obvious or disguised amid the scenery, but it will be there. A single painting may be only one episode, but it often holds references to other parts of the tale too, hints at a larger whole. I always want to invite people to slow down, take their time, look, explore the painting. Read it or listen to it – either as you like. We may not be able to sit down together by the fireside while I tell the tale, but the painting stands for me.
Some of my paintings are of old tales and legends, the ‘true tradition’ of the Isles of Britain of which there is so much, and which is often so fresh and unexpected in its turns. Others are based on modern tales, especially those of JRR Tolkien. Some tell stories of my own, written or only painted – tales for you to explore and re-tell for yourself. Most of these artworks are in a style picked up from the medieval books that first taught me how to do this, realistic though not pretending to the eye’s perspective as most art has since the Renaissance. I feel it needs that grounding in reality for the fantasy – and the patternmaking of art - to tell with its full power. (Besides, I did take a science degree way back when, and designing dragons that work is fun!)
Other works again, the paintings I call British Aboriginal, tell their tales with and through the landscape, mapping the story onto it, using forms so much older than the Medieval that they are new again, imagery totally native to this country yet now very strange to most of us. Much more abstract yet still figurative, still narrative, in these paintings people and creatures follow the lines of the story in the land. This too is developing something that goes back to the beginnings of my creativity. The stories of the Scottish Borders were folk and ’fairy’ tales, yes, but the landscape they were set in was the one I lived in at weekends, visiting relatives who lived there full time. This wasn’t Fantasyland; it was home. The utter rootedness of the tales only added to the power of their stranger aspects. We never wished the stories were true; we knew they were, and only hoped never to find ourselves in such a tale. That sense of the power of landscape and story led me to the more unusual, more abstract narratives of the British Aboriginal pieces.
As someone who is not only ‘an illustrator’ of Tolkien’s stories, but also a researcher and writer who has explored deeply into their development and background – and, third point, a writer of fiction myself who wrote her way through Middle-earth and out the other side to find my own voice – I paint Tolkien-inspired art from an unusual viewpoint. To satisfy me, the images I make have to combine that deep knowledge with a fresh artistic inspiration. It works best when the knowledge sparks the inspiration – when for instance a discovery about a superstar dancer of Tolkien’s own time matches up with his description of the Elvish princess and heroine Lúthien dancing, and offers a totally new way to tackle the subject that flows naturally from within it.