Monday, December 03, 2012

J.R.R. Tolkien - the artist

Dustcover for The Hobbit 
- published by Allen and Unwin
A very long time ago, I read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien as a child in primary school.  Its book cover was rather wonderful and very striking.  It's probably the book cover I remember best of all the books I read as a child.

Tolkien is, of course, a very popular and well regarded author.  In addition, I've always had a lot of regard for JRR Tolkien as a wonderful mapmaker of fantasy places.  However what I didn't realise until recently (see Jonathan Jones article in The Guardian Why Tolkien was a fine modern artistwas that he was also an artist who liked to develop a number of paintings in colour to illustrate his books.
Drawings and sketches, often in preliminary form in the margin of the text, can be found throughout the handwritten manuscripts. Marquette Univerity - J.R.R. Tolkien Collection
It's interesting that Tolkien commented in his letters that when he started to develop his work he was conscious of recording what was already "there", rather than inventing anything.

The images I've been looking at recently have left me wondering what were the influences on his illustrative style which seems to have become very developed and refined in terms of style over time.

Apparently as a child he liked to draw landscapes and trees and to my mind there is a certain child-like naievete present in his paintings.  The colours also seem to be used in a very symbolic way to indicate the mood of the place.

The Hill, Hobbiton-across-the-water by JRR Tolkien

From 1911 onwards, it appears he began to draw from his imagination.  Apparently the drive to portray places came from the knowledge that invented languages needed to be associated with a people and a place.

Wikipedia suggests the romantic medievalist paintings of Edward Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as having a strong influence on his work given that Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery owned a significant number of their works.

That's a perspective which is maybe not shared by Birmingham City Council in their overview of Tolkien's childhood and youth in Birmingham since they make no reference to his access to artwork within the city.

There again the books and the Elvish language developed out of Tolkien's deep interest in Old Norse literature and mythology and he was, after all, the  Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University.  I therefore wondered whether any of the Scandinavian artists and illustrators had maybe influenced him.  Certainly some of the paintings remind me very much of a certain style but I can't remember the name of the artist I'm thinking of.  Perhaps readers can help me out?

Some of them - such as the dustcover - make me think they were conceived as a woodcut or linocut.  However I wonder whether this is to do with the cost constraints of the publishers rather than the way Tolkien originally conceived the work

I know that some of the coloured maps he produced had to be amended from the originals so they could be printed without it costing he earth'.  So for example, some illustrations were re-rendered in line-block and half tone.

However original paintings do exist and can be viewed - in books and online!

Rivendell - painted by JRR Tolkien
Introducing J.R.R. Tolkien - the artist

There are a few sites where you can see the images of JRR Tolkien the illustrator and artist.
I'm wondering how long it will take Wikipedia to relaise that its Middle earth portal lacks any reference to Tolkien's artwork!

Books about the Art of JRR Tolkien

Tolkien kept nearly all the art he produced and hence archivists have been able to trace the pattern of development of some of the finished paintings.  This is illustrated and discussed in the books about his artwork.

There are also books about the art of Tolkein which contain very many black and white and colour illustrations of his artwork for various books. These are:
  • The Art of the Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (27 Oct 2011).  This was published to mark the 75th anniversary (last year) of the first publication of The Hobbit and contains over 100 drawings, sketches, paintings and maps related to the book.
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit, the complete artwork created by the author for his story has been collected in The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Including related pictures, more than one hundred sketches, drawings, paintings, maps, and plans are presented here, preliminary and alternate versions and experimental designs as well as finished art. Some of these images are now published for the first time, and others for the first time in colour.
  • J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator by Wayne G. Hammond and  Christina Scull (16 Feb 2004).  This book explores Tolkien's art from start to finish, beginning with his childhood paintings and drawings and finishing with his final sketches.
Tolkien inspired art

I didn't realise until I started this post just how much artwork Tolkien has inspired.  It's all over the Internet and it's actuallly quite difficult to separate out the artwork done by Tolkien from that inspired by Tolkien

What is known is that Tolkien had some strong views on how his books should be portrayed.  He was very much against any 'disnification' of his characters!

Over to you.  Did you know Tolkien was an artist?  What do you think of his paintings?


  1. I live in Sweden and has always admired Tolkiens art. Perhaps he was influenced in some way by the art of the great swedish artist John Bauer, who illustrated many old sagas and fairy tales? There were many great scandinavian illustrators during the late 1890:s to early 20 th century, specially illustrating old norse sagas and also illustrating childrens books. One of these was Elsa Beskow who wrote and drew many much loved childrens books.

  2. I've only realised the Tolkien was also an artist when I researched his works in preparation to teach them to my son. His very intimate illustration in "Letters from Father Christmas" is a real gem.

  3. I've never read a Tolkien work, though I do remember that the other AP English class my freshman year read The Hobbit. My best friend had an assignment to illustrate a scene from the book and I always remember loving her art work. I wonder if her teacher knew that Tolkien illustrated his work as well?

    To me, the ability to put down on paper what your mind imagines is a truly great gift and I never seem to be able to make that transfer from head to paper.

  4. yes!!! I knew that and have that second book. Actually my first exposure to Tolkien was the Father Christmas's letters which is full of his beautiful artwork....I loved that book SO much....hmmm I wonder what influence that has had on me???

  5. Come to think about it, Tolkiens The Lord of The Ring is the only book written in english that I prefer to read in swedish! Perhaps it is because when I first read it was in the swedish translation, but when I read it in english it seemed dull and not so imaginative, it was actually boring! I know that the swedish translator took some liberties with the language, and he made it more golden and more fairy-tale like than the english original. I re-read " The Saga of the Ring" ( as it is called in swedish) every autumn, as it is a book for sitting in front of a warm fire with something good to eat and drink!

  6. Had no idea he produced original art, I've never read his books but have seen (and will be seeing) some of the movies!

  7. Thanks for sharing this. I read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings years ago but didn't know about his colourful paintings. I knew someone who was student at Oxford when Tolkein was a Don there. He said that the creative imaginative side did not come across in lectures or conversation.

  8. Yes, I have a battered copy of The Hobbit as shown above and have always loved the illustrations. Could the Scandinavian artist you are thinking of be Kay Nielsen?

    1. That's the one!

      I used to have a very old Grimm's Fairy Tales when I was little and I'm sure the illustrations used to be by Kay Neilsen - and that's what Tolkein's illustrations reminded me of.


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