Tolkien was taught to draw first by his mother and then at school. His formal art education ceased when he left school and it was then that he began to explore new styles and to take inspiration from his own imagination.
‘Before’, c.1912. When he was a student at university, Tolkien bought a new hardback sketch-book and wrote on the cover, ‘The Book of Ishness’. He started to fill it with drawings of abstract ideas that he called ‘Ishnesses’.
‘Afterwards’, c.1912. This drawing is a pair with ‘Before’. The warm yellow light emanating from the doorway and the figure leading the way are a counter-balance to the forbidding black and red entrance depicted in ‘Before’.
‘Wickedness’, c.1912. In this unsettling image, Tolkien uses red and black to depict the doorway leading to sin and wickedness. A burning brazier stands outside, illuminating an archway surmounted by a three-horned skull and many staring eyes. A large hand parts the curtain, inviting the viewer into the fiery interior.
‘Eeriness’, January 1914. The dark central pathway is a recurring image in Tolkien’s artwork. Here a figure wearing a long cloak and pointed hat and carrying a staff – similar to his description of Gandalf in The Hobbit – stands alone on a forest road at night. Hostility emanates from the trees which seem to reach out their gnarled branches towards the figure.
‘Other people’, December 1912. The small figure in the foreground looks overwhelmed by the huge figures, like chess pieces, towering on either side. The scene is dark and oppressive and emphasizes the loneliness of the central figure.
‘Undertenishness’, 1912. Many of the ‘ishnesses’ were drawn rapidly, perhaps in an attempt to capture an abstract idea without too much conscious thought. Others, such as this one, were more carefully crafted compositions.
‘Grownupishness’, Summer 1913. This is one of only two abstract drawings that contain ‘ishness’ in the title, the other being ‘Undertenishness’. The two drawings can be taken as a pair showing contrasting images of childhood and adulthood.
‘Thought’, 1912. A figure in flowing robes, head in hands, with rays emanating outwards, indicates deep thought. The throne-like chair topped by two stars could indicate a regal or possibly a divine figure.
‘Convention’, 1912. Some ‘Ishnesses’ were drawn on pages from a lined exercise book, indicating that they were drawn quickly when Tolkien did not have his sketch-book to hand.
‘End of the world’, 1912. A person stepping off the edge of a cliff should be a frightening image but the blithe nature of the figure as it strides confidently forwards, and the beauty of the sky, with sun, moon and stars visible, creates a serene and peaceful vision.
‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree’.
‘Beyond’, 12 January 1914. This painting has been pared back to the essentials, creating a simple but striking design. It dates from the Christmas vacation of his third year as a student at Oxford and was painted at Warwick where he was visiting his fiancée, Edith.
Untitled, house in the woods, 6 January 1914. This fairy-tale house in the forest was sketched in The Book of Ishness. Six years later Tolkien drew a picture of Father Christmas’s house which looks remarkably similar.
‘The Land of Pohja’, 27 December 1914, an illustration for the Finnish folk-tales in the Kalevala. Tolkien was fascinated by the language and legends of the Finnish people. They would later influence his Elvish languages and tales.
‘Water Wind & Sand’, 1915. This imaginary landscape, inspired by the Cornish coast near the Lizard, was drawn to illustrate his poem, ‘Sea Song of an Elder Day’.
Untitled, fantasy landscape with covered bridge, c.1915. This scene may have been inspired by the covered bridges he encountered in Switzerland during his walking holiday in 1911.
The man in the moon, 1915, an unfinished illustration for his poem, ‘Why the Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon’.
‘Maddo the armless hand that crept down curtains’, 1928. This imagined ‘bogey’ terrified his son Michael, and Tolkien drew the picture to try and dispel his fears.
‘The Tree of Amalion’, August 1928. Many times over the years Tolkien drew a tree bearing different kinds of leaves and flowers. He called it the Tree of Amalion and it came to represent his literary work, his own personal ‘Tree of Tales’.
An untitled version of the Tree of Amalion, 1928. It is the only one to feature a bird.
An elaborate version of the Tree of Amalion, undated. Tolkien described this imaginary tree as bearing, ‘various shapes of leaves many flowers small and large signifying poems and major legends.’
‘hringboga heorte gefysed’, September 1927. The title is a line from the Old English poem Beowulf, which translates as ‘Now was the heart of the coiling beast stirred’. Tolkien studied and taught this epic poem throughout his career.
‘Wudu wyrtum faest’, July 1928. A drawing of Grendel’s mere from the Old English poem, Beowulf. The title is a quotation which translates as, ‘tree held fast by its roots’.
Untitled, warrior fighting a dragon, May 1928. This small, delicate painting may have been inspired by Beowulf. It was certainly made around the same time as the other three Beowulf illustrations.
An Ent-like tree drawn in July 1928. An almost identical tree appears in the foreground of ‘The Front Gate’, an illustration for The Hobbit drawn in 1936.
‘The Wood at the World’s End’, 1928. The dense rows of trees and the strong green colours in this painting were reprised in The Hobbit dust jacket nine years later.
‘Moonlight on a Wood’, c.1928. Tolkien is experimenting here with a modern geometric style using straight lines and a monochromatic colour scheme to represent a natural scene.
Untitled trees in the moonlight, c.1928. Possibly an earlier version of ‘Moonlight on a Wood’ where the curves, evident here, were replaced by straight lines.
Untitled drawings of trees. The upper drawing is in an art deco style whilst the lower drawing is a frieze. Trees, alone and in forests, were a recurring feature in Tolkien’s work.
Untitled tree bearing a variety of golden fruits and flowers, possibly another version of the Tree of Amalion.
Untitled grasses in black ink. In the 1960s after he had retired from his academic career, Tolkien began to draw more frequently again and experimented with different styles. This is one of a series of plants, in a style resembling the Eastern art form of black ink painting.
Untitled drawings of bamboo, grasses and plants, using black ink, with touches of colour added in ballpoint pen, 1960s.
Page of doodles drawn on newspaper, 1960. Tolkien liked to complete the cryptic crossword in The Times and the Daily Telegraph, both daily newspapers. He would doodle designs and patterns at the same time and was particularly fond of drawing paisley patterns, stylized plants and geometric designs.
Stylized plant design in black ink, drawn alongside the cryptic crossword in The Times newspaper, February 1960.