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NF-Lee's Gildor and Frodo

Happy 119th Birthday, J.R.R.T.

Posted on 2011.01.03 at 07:45
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John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

January 3, 1892 ~ September 2, 1973

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’ [1928] 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.

Water, Wind and Sand, late 1914:


The Shores of Faery [sic], 1915:


Moonlight on a Wood, 1927-28:


~ Mechtild


shirebound at 2011-01-03 14:08 (UTC) (Link)
What a wonderful tribute. Thank you for sharing all this with us.
mechtild at 2011-01-04 04:09 (UTC) (Link)
My pleasure, Shirebound. I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)
belleferret at 2011-01-03 15:16 (UTC) (Link)
Thank you for sharing these lovely drawings by Tolkien. I can see why he was reluctant to try to capture his Luthien's image; Edith is lovely.
mechtild at 2011-01-04 04:09 (UTC) (Link)
You are welcome, Belleferret. It was a pleasure to learn about Tolkien as an artist -- visually, rather than as a writer -- and a pleasure to make this post, hoping to share what I'd learned with others who might not have seen a lot of this stuff.
rakshi at 2011-01-03 16:01 (UTC) (Link)
Thank you so much for these amazing images.

mechtild at 2011-01-04 04:04 (UTC) (Link)
You are welcome!
bellewood at 2011-01-03 17:26 (UTC) (Link)
Oh, these are wonderful. I hadn't realised that he was such an accomplished artist. Thank you so much.
mechtild at 2011-01-04 04:07 (UTC) (Link)
I didn't know, either, Bellewood. Getting that book really opened my eyes. I'd seen several of his illustrations of his work before, but not very many, and none of his drawings and paintings done from life.
not_alone at 2011-01-03 21:50 (UTC) (Link)
This was such a lovely and interesting post Mechtild - thank you so much. I was surprised to see the familiar name of Barnt Green crop up - my brother-in-law and his family live there - it's a lovely area. It occurred to me just how lucky I am to live in the city where Tolkien spent so much of his youth - I'm going to make an effort this year to revisit many of the places associated with him.

I think 'High Life at Gipsy Green' is particularly enchanting. What a creative soul he was. 'To the Professor' - *clink*. (Yes, I do happen to have a small glass of sherry to hand:))
mechtild at 2011-01-04 04:06 (UTC) (Link)
Isn't it lovely, the High Life drawing? In the book, it said that the two cats are supposed to be dancing, something they always appeared to be doing when Edith played the piano.

You have family in Barnt Green? You really do live in the thick of things Tolkien! *clinks you back*
Lavender Took
lavendertook at 2011-01-03 22:20 (UTC) (Link)
What a lovely tribute. I never saw the Cove by Lizard and the Mithrum landscape before--both are gorgeous! it's interesting how he does people facing away--even if it's to avoid drawing faces, it's an odd effect.

Look how the peak of Taniquetil breaks through the upper atmosphere--and the upper ocean where Ulmo hangs out--very cool. He renamed the layers a couple of times.

I hadn't noticed before--my coworker noticed--how high the vault of Bag-end is in JRR's depiction. Gandalf wouldn't have to bend over to enter this one at all. I like Howe's tightening, and further rounding of it better.

I love his style for painting trees, fields, mountains, and water. It's such a distinctive style.

In those last ones he seems to be getting a bit Cubist. Maybe he liked Cezanne--I guess I could see the connection in the blocky way JRR does his landscapes, though they still feel like they have more flow to me than Cezanne's landscapes.

Anyway, happy new year!!! I hope the holidays treated you and yours well.
mechtild at 2011-01-04 04:04 (UTC) (Link)
I never saw MOST of these pictures until I got the book. I had seen the illustrations he'd done for The Hobbit, but I don't remember seeing any others. Some grew up with a copy of the Father Christmas Letters in the house, so they knew those, but I didn't. He really had quite a range, willing to give all sorts of styles a try.

As to his "modern" drawings, I think they've got more flow than Cezanne, too, but that may be the nature of painting an imagined scene. In the last paintings he wasn't painting from life, but trying to make concrete concepts or images in his head, images of scenes that didn't exist in the ordinary world. Maybe he hadn't yet found a way to convery a sense of the next world, of Faerie, through the "stuff" of this world. The first two watercolours are quite early, when he was in the midst of creating his first extended stories of the First Age, very mythical. I actually love that "cubist" piece, the Moonlight on a Wood at the bottom. The way it looks to me, it reminds me of the "splintered light" that Verilyn Flieger lifted up for her book of the same name. It also reminds me of how trying to get around back stage looked to me decades ago, when I stupidly attempted to do my job as a costumer under the influence of halucinogens, lol. That was back in college, thank goodness, not in the more unforgiving adult world. But the shafts of light coming down through the scrims and between the flats and drops looked like they do in that picture, like physical, solid, sharply delineated shafts of light.

P.S. I never put two and two together, looking at his picture of Taniquetil, that he had carefully depicting the different levels of the atmosphere, as described in the early Silmarillion tales. I'm so glad you pointed that out!
Lavender Took
lavendertook at 2011-01-10 18:53 (UTC) (Link)
There were a couple of years a few years back of really nice wall calendars of his illustrations, so I know a lot of those I didn't find in books like Father Christmas in my teens through those.

You're right--that one really fits Verlyn's theme nicely. That sounds like a very cool experience to have had, and I'm glad your brain chemistry came out none the worse for wear--prescription drugs scare me quite enough. (-:

:-D I'm still slogging my way through the HOME, as I've been doing the past couple of years, so it came to mind.
mechtild at 2011-01-11 02:27 (UTC) (Link)
I don't know if my brain chemistry came out o.k. or not. I sure am getting drifty in my twilight years, forgetting words and that sort of thing, just like people in movies scratching their heads over their memory blips and muttering, "must be getting old..." I didn't do the stuff as a regular thing, but the few times I did (and it worked - some of what was sold then did nothing at all, placebos), it was an eye opener and no mistake. But I was no Ken Kesey. :)

You're slogging through the HOME? I did that a few years back, but I actually enjoyed it. No-I never finished, as they didn't have the last two volumes at the library. I have bought them since but have only read them in a pick-and-choose manner, parts of them still not read at all. It's brilliant stuff, but only for fans who have a strong taste for backstory, and for how writing takes place. :)
Hobbity forever
periantari at 2011-01-07 04:53 (UTC) (Link)
i love your icon !! and great comments-- i agree with them too. :)
Lavender Took
lavendertook at 2011-01-10 18:55 (UTC) (Link)
That icon was made by the ever-talented and generous annwyn55 for public use. (-:
golden_berry at 2011-01-04 03:35 (UTC) (Link)
Thank you so much for this! I had no idea that the Professor was quite so talented an artist.
mechtild at 2011-01-04 03:53 (UTC) (Link)
I didn't realise how good he was, either, Goldenberry. I had seen his illustrations for his books, which are lovely, but seeing his watercolours and drawings made from natural settings or picturesque churches and cottages or ruins, well, it was an eye-opener. :)
msilverstar at 2011-01-06 05:47 (UTC) (Link)
beautiful, thank you!
mechtild at 2011-01-06 16:03 (UTC) (Link)
You are welocme!
Hobbity forever
periantari at 2011-01-07 04:52 (UTC) (Link)
Thank you so much for this! I have the book too and look at it from time to time.
I like how he used his colors in the Roverandom pic, Halls of Manwe, and the Rivendell pic.
He gave too little credit to his illustrations, i think. He is an amazing illustrator as well!

Cheers to the Professor!
mechtild at 2011-01-08 04:00 (UTC) (Link)
Cheers, Periantari! I think you're right. He should receive more appreciation as an illustrator. I guess his writing is just so great his artwork simply doesn't come to notice. :)
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