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Interview with Tim Tolkien
Sarah-Jane Lynch

The acclaimed writer’s great nephew Tim Tolkien, is an established artist and sculptor. He has been commissioned to create a memorial statue in honour of his great uncle in the Moseley area of Birmingham. Planning permission was granted in March 2007 after a tireless campaign by Tim and a group created to get the plans of the ground, The Moseley Statue Group. Initially things were going well but now, three years on the space on the village green still remains empty.   I caught up with Tim to see how the recession has put his plans for a twenty-foot Treebeard-type statue on hold, and also why this project is so important to him and Tolkien fanatics everywhere.  

Tim, Do you have any memories of your great Uncle?

I knew him when he was an old man; I was only 11 when he died and he died at 81. It wasn’t like he was a known figure or a celebrity; he was just Grandad’s brother. I remember he always wanted to involve children. At family gatherings he would sit between the table  where the adults were and the table were the children were. He would always make time to talk to us.

It was late in my uncle’s life when his career took off, sometime in the1960s and 1970s, long after he wrote the books. He first wrote ‘The Hobbit’ and’ Father Christmas’ and other books as bedtime stories for his own children. All the while he was making his own living by teaching Anglo Saxon at Oxford University. He thought language was very important which  .is why he made up Elvish in ‘The Hobbit’, with Anglo Saxon influences. Language was the starting point for much of his work, and then he added the people to speak it and then finally a world they could live in.

Would you say you come from a creative family?      

I would say so, but I wouldn’t say the inspiration came directly from my Great Uncle, we are all creative in different ways.  My parents both worked at the BBC, my Mum did make-up and my Dad worked in sound. One of my Brothers is also an artist. I am a father of two and I would say that both of my children aged one and two have inherited the artistic gene, they love cutting and sticking!

Do a lot of people recognise your name?

Everyone I speak to asks about my surname, it’s always a talking point but in some ways it can be a double sided sword. Whenever people want to write about my work there is always some reference to it, so it can be a blessing in disguise, especially when its relevant.   The recent statue project is a good example of this. When the films went big, the phone went mad, so there can’t be many Tolkien’s in the phonebook!  We became the kind of spokespeople for the family.

What inspired you to get into art?

It was just a natural thing for me, I’ve always been good at graphing and drawing and didn’t want to do anything else. After my A levels I went to university. I did a course similar to a foundation course where you could try a bit of everything on offer. I didn’t get on too well with some of the tutors and ended up spending a lot of time sculpting. I kind of fell into it that way.

What inspired you to create the statue in Birmingham?

It was the Moseley Statue Group who contacted me. They’d had some design ideas commissioned before and planning permission had already been granted for those, but due to money problems, the project fell through. They started to work on something new and contacted me directly when they heard that I was a local artist with the family name.

J.R.R Tolkien had strong connections with Birmingham, the Moseley area in particular. It is widely believed that nature reserve ‘Moseley bog’ was the inspiration for the ancient forests,  ‘The Two Towers’ were inspired by ‘Perrot’s folly’ and ‘Waterworks’ in nearby Edgbaston and just a stone’s throw away is ‘Sarehole mill’, recently renamed as ‘The Shire Country Park’. It seems fitting that there should a tribute in this area.

We wanted the statue to be in a place which would attract attention to the centre of Moseley, there was no point hiding it away at Moseley Bog. The middle of the green is a hive of activity surrounded by shops, pubs and restaurants. It also plays host to the award winning farmers market and other regular events.

There is already a piece of my work in the Elizabeth of York pub, beside the green.  I was commissioned to make it when the pub first opened in 2002 and was originally going to be called ‘The J.R.R. Tolkien’!

What other design ideas were considered and what stage are you at now? 

Lots of designs were considered, including a kind of hobbit door in the middle of the green but we wasn’t quite sure of the practicalities, like whether the door could open. We needed to leave lots of floor space for the Farmers Market and other events, so this was a big consideration in design. The ‘Ent’ idea was the one that was most liked. There was some negative criticism but enough positive, too, for planning permission to be granted.

The design stage is complete now. It took probably about two to three years; the time was spent considering different ideas and going through the process of getting planning permission.  A model was made and used to create mock photos, which people thought were very realistic. I’ve had people ring to see if the statue has been moved, because they’ve seen the mock photos then gone to visit, but I haven’t started making yet. I won’t until all the money is there.

It will take about six months to construct the statue; I will build it in pieces then put it together on the site.

What is being done to raise money for the project?

Leaves can be bought which will form part of the statue; they can be engraved with a family or business name, so are a great commemorative gift. They large ones cost £2000 each, but smaller ones are available at a lesser cost. These are available from Marcus Galleries in Moseley.

The leaves were selling well at first but the project has gone a little by the wayside a bit now. It needs a real injection of life back into it and into the Moseley Statue Group, as people have moved away and so on. The recession hasn’t helped; everyone has been losing money whilst we’ve being trying to raise some.

We’ve been trying to get grants. We’ve appealed to the Arts Council but our appeal was rejected as we didn’t meet their criteria. They wanted new art works, but the statue is a re-interpretation. Whatever happens, I really hope the project goes ahead, if we can’t raise enough a smaller project will be considered but there will definitely be something to commemorate Tolkien’s links to Moseley.

I also spoke to David Isgrove, who is vice chair of the  Moseley Forum Committee and has played a key role in the Moseley Statue group. He echoed Tim Tolkien’s ideas about fund-raising.

What does the Statue group believe is in store for the future of the project?

Obviously the recession hit us just as we were raising public support. This caused a set back in the project. However, despite the fact it has taken us longer than we thought, we hope to complete it.

A few weeks ago a group of American tourists came armed with cameras, just to take pictures of the statue in Moseley. They were bemused by the fact it wasn’t there. This  reinforces the attraction that this statue will have, putting Moseley on the map for not just Tolkien, but as a creative village.

We are looking for creative ways of funding the project.  Firstly we will be writing to the Tolkien estate asking for their advice and help in anyway and then we will be in discussion with a national art gallery. We will also be tweaking the planning application, ready to put it in again. We hope to announce some specific ideas for fundraising in the next few months.

To buy a leaf contact Marcus Galleries on 0121 442 0620

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