To honour Tolkien’s birthday this year I decided to offer up a few excerpts from the very fine volume, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, edited by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond. Although the plates in the older volumes of Tolkien’s pictures are far better (e.g. Pictures By J. R. R. Tolkien, The Father Christmas Letters), Scull and Hammond have written some very interesting text to go with their book’s collection of illustrations.
All excerpts (and nearly all of the scans) come from Scull and Hammond’s J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator.
As the book's authors make clear, Tolkien liked to observe and draw from early on, his mother Mabel instructing him in botany and art and more. He rendered the natural world and the imagined. Clearly, he was not an art prodigy, his early unschooled efforts no better than the next child’s.
1902 ~ [Probably] Ronald and Hilary on the beach, possibly at Bournemouth or Poole, where the brothers spent seaside holidays with Tolkien’s godfather. They would have been about ten and eight years old.
1905 ~ photograph of Ronald and Hilary, the year after their mother’s death.
Tolkien improved as he grew up and made many fine sketches and paintings from life, mostly of landscapes and interesting structures – and seascapes. Below is a fine example from 1914. He'd gone up to Oxford, then went on the long summer holiday to Cornwall. He had just been visiting Edith -- they were now engaged, Tolkien having proposed on his twenty-first birthday the previous year -- and he wrote to her about it.
A cove near the Lizard, in Cornwall, 1914.
He stayed with Father Vincent Reade near the Lizard, the southernmost part of England, and they went on long walks together. (…) He wrote of the scenery, which made a great impression on him, to Edith:
”We walked over the moor-land on top of the cliffs to Kynance Cove. Nothing I could say in a dull old letter would describe it to you. The sun beats down on you and a huge Atlantic swell smashes and spouts over the snags and reefs. The sea has carved weird wind-holes and spouts into the cliffs which blow with trumpety noises or spout foam like a whale, and everywhere you see black and red rock and white foam against violet and transparent sea green.”
The sea in all its aspects fascinated Tolkien and influenced both his writings and his art. In its calmer mood it can be seen, for example, in his painting Halls of Manwë....
“The Halls of Manwë”, 1928.
In 1915, Tolkien took up his commission as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. Knowing embarkation to France was near, he and Edith married in March 1916. Tolkien came home on sick leave with trench fever in early 1917. In the midst of the comings and goings, Edith moving about as she followed her husband, John, their first child, was born in November.
In the spring of 1918, Tolkien assigned to a camp in Staffordshire, the family moved to lodgings in ‘Gipsy Green’, a house that still exists. The house had four prominent chimneys and may have inspired the House of a Hundred Chimneys at Tavrobel in The Book of Lost Tales.
Gipsy Green, 1918.
Tolkien did not draw human subjects nearly as often as landscapes, except cartoonish versions. Perhaps he was more interested in natural settings and structures, or maybe he drew figures less well. His animals are often very good, both stylized and realistic. Perhaps he simply could never “get” a human face, imagined or posing right in front of him, at least, not in a way that satisfied him.
Below is a group of little sketches, very light-hearted, called “High Life at Gipsy Green”. There are many figures in it, but it sticks out a mile that people’s faces are not shown. "Portraits by him from life are almost non-existent", says the Scull-Hammond book. In High Life, there are some portraits, but more like cartoons or caricatures. Tolkien himself appears a few times, in uniform, on the right side of the picture. There is a barely-discernible John in his cot. (John's cot and his pram, to the right, are far more carefully rendered than he.) Edith is shown doing homely things: bathing herself (with lots of splashing), fixing her hair, carrying John through the garden, playing the piano, but in none is she facing the viewer.
"High Life at Gipsy Green", early summer of 1918.
Did he wish to preserve her privacy, her mystique? I suspect he would have liked to make her portrait, but guessed (or felt sure) he would not be able to capture the face of the woman who inspired Lúthien Tinúviel.
Photograph of Edith:
Tolkien’s love for drawing, painting and decorative texts did not diminish as he grew. While practice did not make his work perfect, continued practice gave him control over his media and greatly expanded the range of what he could express through his art. His art helped him to realise the world he was writing about. Conversely, the eye he developed drawing and painting helped make his descriptive writing vivid.
Regarding Tolkien’s artistic influences,
[Tolkien] was certainly aware of the decorative arts that flourished in England during his youth. Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892 and moved to England in 1895. William Morris died the following year, but the Arts and Crafts movement he helped found, and attendant decorative styles such as Art nouveau, endured into the next century. Their effect eventually was felt everywhere in Britain, most widely in advertising and books, but also in textiles, carpets, furniture, buildings. That Tolkien took note of such designs, and that they were a lasting inspiration to him, is clear in works as widely separated in time as his ‘Trees of Amalion’  and repeat-pattern friezes of the late 1920’s, the decorative borders on his Hobbit paintings of 1937, and the elaborate ornamental patterns he drew in his later years. It seems clear, too, that he agreed with the underlying philosophy of Morris and his followers, which looked back to a much earlier time: that the ‘lesser’ arts of handicraft embodied truth and beauty no less than the ‘fine’ arts of painting and sculpture. One looks for the latter almost in vain in Tolkien’s writings (Leaf by Niggle excepted), but finds a wealth of references to crafts.
Tolkien was exposed to and loved the illustrators of the period, too.
The Tolkien household contained many illustrated books; he had lost all of those he had in his own childhood, but made up for it in the libraries he formed for his sons and daughter. As might be expected, he was particularly interested in illustrated fairy-stories and works of romance.
In art Tolkien was willing to experiment, mix elements, as he was in story-making.
Just as Tolkien’s fiction came out of a great Cauldron of story in which Myth and Hostory and many other ‘potent things lie simmering agelong on the fire’, so his paintings and drawings too were products of a melting-pot, where all of the art he saw was combined. The evidence of his own art together with his writings suggests that he saw a great deal. ‘But if we speak of a Cauldron,’ Tokien says in On Fairy Stories, ‘we must not wholly forget the Cooks. There are many things in the Cauldron, but the Cooks do not dip in the ladle quite blindly.’ Art nouveau was to his taste, and he often brought it out of the ‘pot’. So were medieval manuscripts, which he used as models for his calligraphy. Late in life he seems to have become interested in Oriental bamboo paintings, which he translated into ornamental grasses.
Untitled, probably 1967:
How much he was influenced by contemporary movements or styles in art other than Art nouveau is a matter of conjecture, and ultimately fruitless to pursue. (…) He tried on different styles, but most did not suit him and appear in his work only once or twice. They tell us, though, that he had at least a passing familiarity with modern art [see some of the last illustrations below], even at times an attraction to it.
Whether drawing and painting in a stylized manner for his children's entertainment (the illustrations for the Father Christmas letters) or for publication (the illustrations for The Hobbit), or depicting more scenes and settings in a more naturalistic manner, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a gifted artist and illustrator. Below are more examples of Tolkien's lovely and varied work.
A watercolour landscape imagined for the Silmarillion, Mithrim, complete with decorative border ~ 1927:
Illustrations from Tolkien's picture book written for his three boys (Priscilla wasn't born yet), Mr. Bliss. The story was told them in 1928, but the illustrated book was not prepared until the 1930's:
Mr. Bliss collides with Mr. Day:
The party at Bear's house:
For Roverandom, also written for his children, a watercolour of the house where Rover began his adventures as a 'Toy':
An illustration for the original 1937 The Hobbit showing the trolls around their fire. Its composition was borrowed from a Jennie Harbour illustration for Hansel and Gretel. The illustrations would not be in colour so Tolkien makes striking use of black and white:
Bilbo Baggins in the Hall at Bag End, for the original edition of The Hobbit, 1937:
Colourized version (by H. E. Hiddett) for the 1976 deluxe edition of The Hobbit:
From twenty-year-old Tolkien's 1912 walking tour of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, a pencil and ink drawing of Quallington Carpenter, a cottage in Eastbury, Berkshire:
Tolkien visited his maternal cousins at Barnt Green, where he did a number of watercolours. This one shows the cottage garden in July, 1913:
This picture of Taur-na-Fúin was done in July, 1928, along with other pictures for Silmarillion tales. Beleg, a tiny figure with red shoes, crawls among the roots before finding Flinding ('Gwindor', in the published Silmarillion). A version of the picture in ink was used as a Mirkwood illustration for The Hobbit. The version below, with "Fangorn Forest" written in by Tolkien, was used for the 1974 Tolkien calendar.
Probably the earliest extant illustration of Rivendell. This is a Rivendell that actually has some farmable land (I always wondered where the food came from for that large household):
A beautiful, later depiction of Rivendell, quite similar to the painting used for the book:
Below are three pictures from different years I find fascinating, done in different styles, quite "modern" looking, all seemingly steeped in the world of the Silmarillion.