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Real life

Tolkien was adept at painting landscapes and could skilfully render buildings and architectural detail. He was less successful at portraying the human figure which rarely appears in his artwork, apart from the illustrations he drew for his children.

Untitled landscape. Tolkien painted this scene in a small sketch-book used during his childhood. He had an abiding love of the English countryside with its ‘little lanes and hedges and rustling trees’.

‘Lambourn Berkshire. West Door of Church’, 30 August 1912. At the end of his first year at university, Tolkien took a short vacation in Lambourn, Berkshire (about 25 miles south-west of Oxford) and made a number of sketches and paintings of the countryside and of rural buildings.

‘The Cottage Barnt Green’, 12 July 1913. This was the home of the Incledon family. May Incledon was his mother’s older sister and her daughters, Mary and Marjorie, were Tolkien’s cousins and his companions from early childhood.

‘Barnt Green July 2nd 1913 (Foxglove year)’. During the holidays, Tolkien often stayed with the Incledons at their cottage in the village of Barnt Green in Worcestershire. Being an orphan he didn’t have a family home to return to when the university term ended.

‘King’s Norton from Bilberry Hill’, Worcestershire, 8 July 1913. This view was painted on an excursion from his cousins’ house in Barnt Green.

‘Turl Street Oxford’, 1913. This is the view from Exeter College where Tolkien was an undergraduate. He lived in the college on Turl Street for three years when he was a student.

‘Cove near The Lizard’, painted whilst he was on holiday with a friend in Cornwall, 12 August 1914. As Tolkien travelled down to Cornwall by train, Britain declared war on Germany. The remoteness of this Cornish peninsular provided a temporary escape from the fear and uncertainty that swept the country at this time.

‘Caerthilian Cove & Lion Rock’, Cornwall, 12 August 1914. Tolkien was inspired by the wild Cornish coastline to paint scenes, both real and imagined; to write long descriptive letters to his fiancée Edith, and later to transform the experience into poetry.

‘High Life at Gipsy Green’, 1918. These sketches of his early married life were drawn at Gipsy Green near Bednall in Staffordshire where Tolkien lived with his wife, Edith, and infant son, John towards the end of the First World War.

‘Tumble Hill near Lyme R[egis]’, August 1928. As a child Tolkien went on holiday to the seaside resort of Lyme Regis in Dorset with his guardian Father Francis Morgan. In later years he returned there with his own family for summer holidays.

This woodland scene bears a resemblance to the drawing of ‘Tumble Hill near Lyme Regis’ which Tolkien drew on holiday in 1928.

‘London to Oxford through Berkshire’. The title makes it clear that this was a real scene, probably glimpsed from the train as he travelled back to Oxford but the stark black shapes of the pollarded trees and the muted wash of background colours give it an unreal quality.

‘Spring 1940’, showing a flowering Victoria Plum tree in Tolkien’s garden in Northmoor Road, Oxford. He made very few drawings or paintings of actual places after 1928. This drawing, on blue-grey paper, is an exception.

‘Summer in Kerry’, a rather tongue-in-cheek title for this brooding scene. Tolkien took his sketchbook with him when he went on holiday with his family to Castle Cove, County Kerry, on the extreme south west coast of Ireland in August 1951.