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Friday, August 20, 2021

The Holmes Basic Set Cover Art: Exhibited!


"The Sutherland Dragon" on display, photo by myself


About two weeks ago, while on vacation, I saw a cryptic post on FB implying that the original Holmes Basic Set cover art  which I often refer to as "The Sutherland Dragon", after the artist  was on display in public ... somewhere. After a bit of searching, I confirmed that it was indeed being exhibited, as part of the show Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration at the Norman Rockwell Museum in the town of Stockbridge in western Massachusetts. I hadn't heard of the show until that moment, but at the time I just happened to be within reasonable driving distance of the museum, and would not be as close again for some time, so a quick decision was made to take a previously unplanned side trip to the museum!

A Painting Rediscovered

Not all original D&D art still exists, but I've known for a while that Sutherland's painting does, because back in 2013 Steve Winter reported on Twitter that it had been found, like the Lost Ark of the Covenant, "in a crate in WotC's warehouse". Steve provided a photo, observing that the "detail is amazing", which showed that the art had slipped inside its framing while in storage:




(As an aside, I joined Twitter for the first time just so I could comment on Steve's tweet, which eventually led to regular usage, and I recently passed 700 followers).

At the time, Steve also wrote on his blog Howling Tower about the find, which he coincidentally posted on Holmes' date of birth.

I also have a vague recollection of hearing later that it was now hanging up at the WOTC offices. I've played in several games with Steve at NTRPG Con and Gary Con over the years since (Gamma World, for example), so I may have asked him about it at one point.

Update: I was reminded on Twitter that on page 394 of Art & Arcana (2018), there is a small inset showing a WOTC employee holding the Sutherland Dragon with the caption: "Wizards employee Curt Gould poses in front of the beast with a red dragon of his own — the original Dave Sutherland basic box painting that he discovered in a Wizards of the Coast warehouse in 2013". The painting is in the same frame as the current exhibit. This may have been the source of my vague recollection mentioned in the paragraph above.

The Exhibit Curator on Sutherland's Illustration

The Enchanted exhibit opened in mid-June, after which the museum held a virtual symposium, which included a keynote talk (archived here on Google) by the exhibition curator, Jesse Kowalski, who at one point shows Sutherland's art (at ~41:00) and says that "it is probably the painting I was most thrilled to have in the exhibit", and that "I believe it is the first time on view to the public. It's on loan from Wizards of the Coast", and while "...it's not the best painting, however, it's such an iconic work that started a whole generation of kids in the basement rolling dice".

Visiting the Museum

After driving several hours we arrived in Stockbridge, where Rockwell had lived, and then at the museum, which is in a beautiful leafy setting with picnic tables and sculptures, which currently includes a complimentary exhibit of contemporary fantasy sculpture, titled Land of Enchantment: A Fantastical Outdoor Sculpture ExhibitionIn addition to the museum proper, which counts George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as donors, Rockwell's actual studio is also on the grounds, having been moved there from another location in town. 

Update: Thanks to a user on reddit, I've learned that Stockbridge is also famous as the setting of Arlo Guthrie's song Alice's Restaurant.

Seeing The Sutherland Dragon

After paying our entry fee and applying my sticker, I zipped through the rooms of the exhibit until I found what I was there for, which was hung next to another classic from the same era, David Trampier's Pseudo-dragon from the AD&D Monster Manual:




It was stunning to finally see the Sutherland Dragon in the person. 
The colors in the original are *much* brighter than the published image on the box cover, and many details are more apparent, such as the colorful, glinting gems stuck in the crevices between the dragon's belly scales, like Smaug in the Hobbit. I'll make a follow-up post with a few closer photos of details of the painting, so here I'll just talk about some overall impressions of the painting as it is on display in the exhibition.

The painting, which the wall text indicates is "acrylic on board", has been re-framed since 2013, and now includes triple matting (see the picture at the top of this blog). I imagine this was done by Wizards of the Coast, who the wall text indicates are still the owners. The catalog for the exhibit (see below for more on this) lists the size as 24 5/8" x 22", which I believe refers to the entire framing, or perhaps just the painted board inside. The new matting is more aggressive than in the earlier frame, limiting the visible portion of the painting to about 10" by 12", which is just a bit larger than the original box cover, which is about 9" by 11". I can guess why this was done, as it has the effect of focusing the presentation on the action of the scene: the wizard and warrior confronting the looming red dragon. And it also emphasizes that Sutherland was painting something just a bit larger in scale than what was needed for the product as published. 

Unfortunately, WOTC's new matting covers up some significant details from Sutherland's original painting. Like other TSR boxed games from this era, the cover art was printed not just on the top of the box lid, but also wraps around to the sides. In the case of the Holmes Basic Set, the left, top and right sides each show the blocks of dungeon walls, which were all part of Sutherland's painting. Since this is an exhibition focusing on illustration, I would have preferred to see the entire painting, along with discussion of how Sutherland arranged a composition that was intended for a wrap-around box top. 

The matting also shifts the "visible portion" of the painting downward from the published box cover, which covers up most of a significant detail that is visible at the top of the published box cover: the archway that connects the top of the columns and frames the dragon. As a positive, this shift keeps uncovered most of what was shown on the bottom box edge, allowing for an fuller unobstructed view of the two adventurers, which I enjoyed seeing.
 
For a visualization of what the entire painting might look like if the current matting was removed, here is a mock-up of the original art posted on the Xeveninti blog back in 2010. It was made by scanning the entirety of the original box (cover and all four sides), editing these together, and editing out the graphics:




I hope I don't sound too negative here; this was simply an observation I made while viewing the painting and thinking about it. My overall experience at the museum was terrific, I was thrilled to see the painting in person, and it is wonderful that it has been preserved ("it belongs in a museum!") and has been made available for public showing by WOTC.

Exhibition Catalog

I bought a copy of this at the gift shop, and you can purchase it online here. It's nicely done, edited by the curator of the exhibit, and lavishly filled with color images from the exhibit, plus other images not in the exhibit. There's an 11-page section called "Gaming", which includes a ~1/3-page image of the Sutherland painting — I, of course, wish they made this one full page like some of the other illustrations in the book — and a really nice large scan of Trampier's Pseudo-dragon, as well as other gaming art, including an Elmore and an Easley that were also in the show.

Thy Deadline

If you want to see the exhibit in person in Stockbridge, get there by October 31st of this year!

Update: Mike S. on FB found info here on where the show will later move to:

  • May 20 to September 5, 2022: Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, TN
  • September 23, 2022 to January 8, 2023: Flint Institute of Art in Flint, MI

Future Posts

I plan to make a few follow-up posts with some closer shots of the Sutherland Dragon, and also a few of the other artworks in the exhibition, including Trampier's Pseudo-Dragon. I'll update this section with the links once they are up.

See also:

Smaug versus the Sutherland Dragon

David Sutherland Day

Sutherland Dragon in Lego

Dragon+ 5 Wallpaper inspired by Sutherland Dragon

4 comments:

  1. That's really neat...I would love to see that. Whenever I see that particular image, I can always smell that whiff of cardboard box scent when you opened the lid. Weird sensory memory, but it's a vivid one.

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  2. Thanks that sounds like it was worth the trip. Too bad about them covering the arch. Matting art is a tricky thing. I love the pseudo dragon drawing alot too.

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  3. That must have been a feeling! I agree it would have been nice to see more of the painting. I understand they were probably cropping to balance the composition sans text, but the arch and flagstones are such an integral part of the design!

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  4. Anyone remember which PCs are depicted in the painting? Do you think it's the same wizard as depicted in the old TSR logo and cover of B1?

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