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© 2009/2010 Festival in the Shire Journal. All rights reserved.

The artist as storyteller: Interview with Rodney Matthews

“His powers of description are an illustrator’s dream, just leaving enough unsaid to turn things into a joint enterprise. But most of all I believe J.R.R. Tolkien lived and breathed his stories—written from the soul—directed by the Spirit!”

Rodney Matthews lives in an extensive farmhouse perched high on the hills edging the Snowdonia National Park, Wales. He moved here from Somerset after gaining a persistent reputation for his high quality art, including posters, book covers and record sleeves for the likes of the band Magnum. The tone of his distinctive fantasy art is set by the dominance of a single colour. This is often from the blue-green end of the spectrum, an influence of his hero Walt Disney. At the same time there is subtlety and depth to his creations, an inner quality that is his equivalent of Tolkien’s word-based sub-creations. Colin Duriez, who has known Rodney Matthews for many years, interviewed him for Festival in the Shire Journal.

Rodney, what led you into becoming an artist?

My interest in art followed a spontaneous artistic endeavour performed by my father in 1949, or thereabouts. We lived in a small council house in Somerset, the living room of which was papered with a slightly textured creamish wallpaper. For a reason never explained, my Dad entered the room still wearing his working overalls. Taking out a large oval-sectioned carpenter’s pencil he proceeded to draw ten-inch-high Walt Disney characters around the room, at child height! These accomplished renditions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Goofy and Clarabelle Cow, stayed with me until the room eventually was re-papered, and influenced my own artistic aspiration.

Your artistic influences, I believe, are varied, including Walt Disney, Arthur Rackham and Mervyn Peake. Who would you isolate as most significant?

Well of course it would be Disney. And it got even worse during the early fifties, when my elder brother took me to the local cinema to watch Disney’s Snow White, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Arriving home from the cinema I would draw my own versions of scenes from the films and could even whistle most of the musical themes. (“The second star to the right” was my favourite.)

I couldn’t get enough of Disney’s stuff … Sleeping Beauty (where my dragons come from), Pinocchio, and so on, on and on, over the horizon of infinite possibility!

You’ve illustrated posters, book covers (including my first book about Tolkien!), calendars, record covers for Magnum and other bands, and high quality prints and originals. What led to this diversification, and how did this influence the course of your future work?

Just to give you some background—upon leaving the West of England College of Art in 1962 I took a job at Ford’s Creative (Bristol), an advertising agency, specializing in point-of-sale. It was here that I endured an endless stream of mind-numbing, boring graphics jobs, which nevertheless taught me the disciplines of working on every conceivable format. So, unlike many fantasy artists, I am a natural diversifier, comfortable with many formats, but it has to be fantasy, sci-fi or fairy tale – and humorous.

How did one of your biggest projects, Lavender Castle, come about and how would you sum it up?

Lavender Castle was eventually made as a 26-episode children’s TV series in stop motion animation with sets and some CG animation for space ships and other machinery.

I would describe it as an intergalactic comic adventure with a good moral code. It was screened on ITV in the UK commencing in 1998, and had taken two years to make, at a cost of 2.5 million pounds. I thoroughly enjoyed working on this project, particularly as I got to work with a number of very talented animators, model makers, technicians and similar.

Did your work on Lavender Castle, which was eventually produced of course by Gerry Anderson, come out of a desire to harness technical developments in your art?

Yes, I had always wanted to see my creations move and talk, taking on believable characteristics. Gerry Anderson was wonderful to work with and gave me a completely free hand with regard to all aspects of design. We currently have other animation intellectual properties awaiting the magic purse! These are expected to be done entirely in CG animation.

Fantasy films and games are becoming more and more technologically complex. You of course experienced state-of-the-art technology in working with Gerry Anderson. What do you think these developments have added and made possible?

The average top-flight computer game now costs 20 million US dollars, so that many of the larger companies are playing safe, with games derived from past successes or licensed from hit films. Not much room for untried ideas anymore! So regarding technology, this has been advanced greatly in games and film, but any amount of special effects will not compensate for a bad script, a dull plot, or an uninteresting game-play. It does, however, mean that on the occasion of my own involvement I can expect the computer-generated models to look more realistic and more like my original designs.

Was your involvement with Lavender Castle as a development of your work in new areas anything to do with the fact that you are a fundamentally a story-teller?

Yes, I think it must be. I was a drummer in a band I used to play for, and it’s not very often that the drummer writes the lyrics! I used to read a lot of fantasy stories at that time, Tolkien, and most of the better-known fantasy and science fiction authors. And because I so much enjoyed the stories, I always wanted then to go away and illustrate them. So it’s really, yes, I am a story-teller to some extent, but I’m not inclined to sit down and write the story like some. I’m more inclined to tell the story in a pictorial way. I don’t lack imagination when it comes to inventing my own stories, it’s just that I find it difficult to write them down.

Recently you’ve extended your illustrations of Alice in Wonderland to illustrate the whole book. Is this something you plan to do more with favourite writers? Does it mark a return to more print-based work?

Yes, the recent book of Alice in Wonderland brings together works illustrated over a period of twenty years, and in producing the later Alice works I had to maintain the same style as the early ones.

I think it does indicate a return to book illustration for me, in that I have loads of works based upon writings of classic authors such as Lewis Carroll, Peake, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien that I am hoping to include in an anthology of great writers.

One of many writers you’ve illustrated extensively is Michael Moorcock. What was it like working with him? What led to his writing one of his Elric stories with you in mind to illustrate?

I haven’t seen Michael for many years, but I know he is still active and very popular. My memories of working with him are all good; in fact I would say that his heroic fantasy tales helped to define my early art style in the 1970s.

As a great admirer of Michael’s fantasy novels (most of which I read with enthusiasm during the seventies) it came as a wonderful compliment when he wrote that I had managed to capture not only the described detail of his work but in many cases the exact mood.

Elric at the End of Time was the highlight of this creative partnership. It is a short story written by Michael with me in mind. The original seed was sown by Peter Ledeboer, boss of “Big O” Publishing, who wanted to publish such a book. Alas, “Big O” collapsed in 1980, but the book was published by Paper Tiger in 1987.

You famously have many illustrations from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. How did you first get interested in Tolkien and then start illustrating his work?

My first encounter with Tolkien’s work came about on a rainy day on the Pembrokeshire coast. I was staying at a friend’s hotel, and seeking to relieve my boredom I wandered into the small library. There, in the undignified status of a doorstop, was a paperback copy of The Hobbit. For years I had endured the endless chatter of members of my rock band discussing The Lord of the Rings in the group van as we travelled to gigs. So, as you can imagine, the sight of The Hobbit filled me with dread! For some reason I picked it up and gave it a quick scan, saying to myself, “Some of this stuff would look good illustrated.” It went on from there …

Explain the deep affinity you have with the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

When I had finished The Hobbit (and sketched a quick interpretation of the Battle of the Five Armies), I ripped into The Lord of the Rings as one converted.

I’m not sure how to explain the affinity I have with Tolkien’s work. It is not something I can sum up with a significant statement.

His technique is relatively simple, yet his words carry an almost supernatural wisdom and authority. I enjoy the Christian allegory, which he said he did not use or approve of, and I admire his understanding of hope when all is almost lost. His powers of description are an illustrator’s dream, just leaving enough unsaid to turn things into a joint enterprise. But most of all I believe J.R.R. Tolkien lived and breathed his stories—written from the soul—directed by the Spirit!

Of your Tolkien-inspired works, do you have a favourite?

I haven’t yet done my favourite Tolkien-inspired painting, but I would say that “Rivendell” would come a close second, and perhaps “Treebeard” third.

In all your work, what is your most popular illustration?

Possibly the Magnum cover, “On a Story Teller’s Night”.

As a fantasy artist, why do you think fantasy has such an appeal in our society?

There are a lot of people who can analyse this and come up with some impressive reasons, one of the most common being escapism. But the way that I look at it is that the universe is a wonderful place, and we’ve only seen a small part of it. I believe that God created that, and I believe that people are made out of something of the character of God, and have aspirations of being like God. I’m not saying this in some strange, religiously deranged way. What I’m saying is that God is the creator, I believe, and we, some of us, have a desire to be creators ourselves. God’s creation is so much more wonderful than ours because it came from nothing, so to speak. But we see, I see, what God has created. I look around at all the animals, birds, plants and colours of everything, and I’m inspired by that to be creative myself, as a sub-creator. In doing so, because I’m not copying things as they actually are, I want to go a bit further than that, and do something of my own. So I end up as a fantasy artist, being anchored down to reality, the reality of the created world I see, but at the same time wanting to go a step further and do something which is different. So I assume that most fantasy artists, and people who write fantasy, must be approaching it from a similar viewpoint. They really feel, even though we’re here on this ball of rock in space, that there is something else elsewhere. That can be anything for a fantasy artist; it’s only limited by the amount of imagination you’ve got.

Going back to the wonder of the created world, how has it inspired you? You seem to be inspired by natural shapes or shapes of insects or roots. Is that true?

Yes, very much true. As I’ve said before, I use the creation as my main inference. But I don’t believe that one should move so far away from it that you’re actually into the realms of abstract design. What happens is that people know the normal things of the world. It’s the ingredients of those things they know about, placed into a fantasy illustration, that makes it believable for them. They see the textures on a weird-shaped creature, very much like the textures on something they’ve seen. Maybe there are certain elements about the anatomy of a character that they recognize, even though it might be fused with something else, or coloured differently from what they’re accustomed to. The fact is that this makes the fantasy piece believable, which is what I’m trying to achieve, and which is good story-telling.

There is often a comic and “nonsense” element in your illustrations (as in the works of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear). Why is this distinctive in so much of your work (your illustration, The Trunk Call, comes to mind)?

Michael Moorcock put it well. I have a vague memory of a conversation described in one of his Eternal Champion stories. The great-albino-hero-swordsman Elric is speaking to his accomplice (possibly Moonglum), saying something like: “I tire of this high and mighty guest. Oh to stand in a tavern and drink and fart with the men!”

For more information on Rodney’s art contact info@festivalintheshire.com

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