‘The Lay of the Children of Hurin’ Illuminated Manuscript: Q&A with artist Steven Umbrello
Starting a couple of months ago, Steven Umbrello began work on an immense project. What you see before you, in the pictures on this page, is an illuminated manuscript of the first part of Professor Tolkien’s The Lay of the Children of Hurin from The Lays of Beleriand.
Having been in love with the tales of Middle-earth since he was a child, as well as being a collector of books, Steven was determined to complete this work. Over the past couple of months, he has been toiling away: writing by hand, illustrating, painting, binding – all while keeping readers of his blog The Leather Library updated on his progress.
What has resulted from his efforts is an incredible achievement. Steven is quick to point out that this is the first time he’s done something artistic of this nature, but you’d be hard pressed to believe him. Needless to say, his work here impressed us mightily – and it’s a testament to his passion and dedication.
Steven took some time to speak with us about his background, his love of Tolkien and his journey in creating this unique piece of art. After reading through our interview, make absolutely sure that you check out Steven’s project updates on his blog (where you will find many more pictures of the work in various stages) and visit his YouTube page. You will also find a wonderful video of Steven flipping through the pages of the finished manuscript at the bottom of this page.
Aragorn the Elfstone: Tell us a bit about yourself, Steven, and how you came to have an interest in Tolkien.
Steven: Currently I am a student at the University of Toronto Mississauga studying philosophy and classical civilizations. I can attribute my love of ancient peoples, as well as my appreciation of deep and meaningful thought, to Tolkien.
I think I was about 6 or 7 when my father first introduced The Hobbit to me. I’m sure he doesn’t remember this but I surely do. He helped me to read through the book – and although I didn’t understand everything that was going on, I can definitely say it made an impact. From that point on I started to love the works of Tolkien. The Peter Jackson films where the next thing to have an impact on me and I can safely say that they brought my love to a whole different level. Since then I have been collecting all things Tolkien and Middle-Earth.
I know most people may not agree with me on this but, although I love both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, The Children of Hurin is by far my most favourite work by Tolkien. I am a sucker for tragic tales. I can actually say now that I am obsessed with The Children of Hurin and that I read it every couple of months! It is this obsession that has lead me to the creation of the illuminated manuscript.
Aragorn the Elfstone: Have you done anything like this before?
Steven: I have said multiple times to those who follow my blog that I have never done anything artistic before, and that’s the truth! I have never before in my life held a paintbrush, let alone paint an entire book. I have never gilded anything before, or illustrated anything, and of course I have never hand-bound a book before. All of these things I had to learn prior to me actually doing them. YouTube was a great help with that.
Aragorn the Elfstone: What inspired you to begin this difficult work?
Steven: I have always had an obsession with books. When collecting books, the ultimate collectors item is the famed medieval illuminated manuscript. Although I don’t own any original ones, I do own two facsimiles – The Book of Hours and The Liber Bestiarum. This lead me to the thought of “why not make an illuminated manuscript of one of Tolkien’s works?” I did a little research and found that the talented art student Benjamin Harff actually made an illuminated manuscript of The Silmarillion, and it is absolutely stunning.
Right away I knew that I had to make one myself, and it had to be of The Children of Hurin. I was aware of the fact that I was neither an art student nor qualified in any way to complete this project, and many times throughout the process I had doubts of the possibility that I would actually complete it.
I realized however that The Children of Hurin was far too long for me to hand-write, illustrate, gild and bind. I then decided that Tolkien’s poem, The Lay of the Children of Hurin, found in The Lays of Beleriand, would suffice.
Steven: With regard to the procedures, from beginning to end, I can categorize them in a few major steps:
1. Hand cut the pages, and rule them so the text is straight.
2. Write out the text by hand using a nib and bottle of ink.
3. Sketch/draw the illustrations that you want on each page around the text.
4. Lay down the gold adhesive and gild with gold leaf the parts that require it.
5. Paint the illustrations.
6. Sew the leafs together in a sewing frame with the proper spine cords.
7. Cut and attach the book boards to the book to create the covers (in this case I used solid oak boards).
8. Bind the whole book in leather (I used blue goatskin leather).
In terms of man hours, from beginning to end, it has taken me 140 hours to complete the manuscript. The punch line is that this is only 1/3 of the poem. This first third, The Fostering of Turin, is about 60 pages long. The remaining two parts will have to be completed in two separate volumes in the future.
Aragorn the Elfstone: What’s been your favorite part of this experience? Most difficult?
Steven: Although, as I have already said, I have no experience in any of the steps above, I nonetheless found binding the book to be quite fun – although a challenge at times. What I found most difficult was painting. I had to teach myself different techniques and learn some tricks of the trade to help me complete the book.
Aragorn the Elfstone: What has working on this manuscript meant for you? And how do you feel about it now that it’s done?
Steven: The first thing I can say to this is that I have learned a deep reverence for those artists who dedicate their lives to complete works like this one. Painters, illuminators and book-binders have all earned my respect.
Now that the manuscript is finished I can say that, although far from perfect, I am proud of what I was able to accomplish given my lack of skill, knowledge and experience in the different art forms. I am happy the book is done and it will surely by a treasured piece of my book collection.
Aragorn the Elfstone: Do you think you might do more projects of this sort in the future?
Steven: As I have said this manuscript is only 1 part of the poem. There are 2 remaining parts that need to be completed before I can say that I have the full poem in the form of illuminated manuscripts. I have not set plans currently for when I will begin the second part. It is a lot of work and it takes a great deal of emotional investment to complete a work like this. I do however look forward to the time in the future when I have all three completed.