Home / Writing / Christina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond, ‘Tolkien’s Art’

Christina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond, ‘Tolkien’s Art’

Scull and Hammond have published extensively on Tolkien’s art and can easily be considered the experts on his attainments as a visual artist. This brief survey covers the full range of his pictorial art, from his early visionary art, to his illustrations for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and his love of patterns and lettering.

Early art and ‘visions’

Christopher Tolkien has rightly said that no study of his father’s written work can be complete without also looking at his art. J.R.R. Tolkien was a talented amateur artist who began to paint and draw while still a boy, and continued to do so until the end of his life. Although his ability to draw the human figure was limited, he could render trees, flowers, and mountains with notable skill. Among his earliest art were sketches of places he visited on holiday.

After he went up to Oxford as an undergraduate in 1911, Tolkien began to make ‘visionary’ pictures of things symbolic or abstract, or of scenes from his imagination rather than from life. He called some of these strange visions ‘ishnesses’, from the endings of picture titles such as Undertenishness and Grownupishness. Tolkien drew most of them in a sketchbook he called The Book of Ishness, which also included pictures inspired by literary works, such as Xanadu after Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’, and The Land of Pohja, inspired by the Finnish Kalevala. More significantly, he also painted several pictures connected to his own nascent ‘Silmarillion’ mythology, such as The Shores of Faery and The Man in the Moon. Aspects of this legendarium sometimes emerged in Tolkien’s pictorial art before he expressed them in words.

‘Xanadu’, inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, ‘Kubla Khan’.

Art for the ‘Silmarillion’ and children’s stories

As the ‘Silmarillion’ developed and grew, Tolkien was inspired to create several illustrations of his imaginary landscapes. His picture of the dragon Glórund (or Glaurung) setting forth to seek the warrior Túrin, and his magnificent watercolour Halls of Manwë on the Mountains of the World above Faerie (also known as Taniquetil), are particularly striking. The entrance to Nargothrond appears in several views, reflecting Tolkien’s changing conceptions of that underground fortress of the Elves.

By now he had also produced many pictures to complement the stories he invented to entertain his children. He made the first of his renderings of Father Christmas in 1920 for his eldest son, John, illustrating a letter written as if by Father Christmas himself and accompanied also by an envelope with a ‘North Pole’ stamp and postmark. Many such illustrated or decorated ‘Father Christmas letters’ followed. For his story Roverandom, conceived in 1925, Tolkien made at least five illustrations, among them one of his finest watercolours, The Gardens of the Merking’s Palace. In the late 1920s or early 1930s he produced a picture book, Mr. Bliss, using coloured pencils and inks so extensively that the work was judged too expensive to publish until printing technology had advanced further, nearly a half-century later. The art of Mr. Bliss has been compared to drawings by the nonsense poet Edward Lear, and indeed it is often as comical and absurd as the text it accompanies.

The Hobbit

Since none of these works was meant to be viewed by anyone apart from family members and close friends, Tolkien felt free to draw or paint illustrations as he wished. This was true of all of his art, with one exception: his pictures for The Hobbit. Although his publisher felt that The Hobbit needed no illustrations other than maps, Tolkien disagreed. He had included several pictures in the ‘home manuscript’ of the work, and proceeded to redraw and add to these as he felt best. His publisher, George Allen & Unwin, finding his pictures delightful, accommodated him to a remarkable degree, objecting mainly to his use of multiple colours in drawing maps. The first printing of The Hobbit (1937) contained eleven one-colour drawings and maps and a halftone depiction of Mirkwood. Four full-colour plates by Tolkien were added to the second printing: watercolour views of Hobbiton, Rivendell, Bilbo approaching the huts of the Raft-elves, and Smaug’s hoard beneath the Lonely Mountain. A fifth watercolour, depicting the Eagles’ eyrie in the Misty Mountains, appeared in the first American edition instead of the ‘Raft-elves’ picture.

Preliminary sketches preserved in Tolkien’s papers reveal the tremendous work that he put into his art for The Hobbit. His picture of the Hill in Hobbiton especially went through numerous versions. He also contributed to the design of the book’s binding, and provided its dust jacket art, a wraparound decorative panorama of mountains and trees. With modified lettering, this is still used on some copies of The Hobbit, and is one of the most distinguished British dust jackets of the twentieth century.

‘Bilbo woke up with the early sun in his eyes’, an illustration for The Hobbit.

The Lord of the Rings

Few of Tolkien’s readers criticized his artwork as harshly as he did himself. He was a better artist than he would usually admit. But he knew that he was not, and would not pretend to be, a professional illustrator. When his story Farmer Giles of Ham needed pictures to increase its length for publication, Tolkien declined to illustrate it. He seems, indeed, never to have tried to do so, probably because he did not have the time rather than for lack of interest. He and his publisher therefore turned to other artists, ultimately choosing Pauline Baynes for the job.

While working on The Lord of the Rings, however, Tolkien continued to use his own artistic skills. He made numerous sketches and several finished coloured pencil drawings to help him visualize the story’s topography and architecture. Most of these have since been published, notably the colour views of Old Man Willow, Moria Gate, The Forest of Lothlórien in Spring, Dunharrow, and Barad-dûr. Tolkien also created ‘facsimiles’ of pages from the fragmentary Book of Mazarbul described in The Lord of the Rings, painstakingly lettering the text, then tearing and burning the edges of the paper; but the cost of their reproduction was more than the publisher’s budget could bear. (They were included at last by HarperCollins in the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Lord of the Rings in 2004.)

Tolkien also worked with Allen & Unwin on dust jacket art for The Lord of the Rings, producing distinctive designs for each of its three volumes. In the event, his publisher chose to have three similar jackets, each of which featured a motif devised by Tolkien in which the Eye of Sauron is shown within the One Ring, encircled by part of the Ring verse. Some of Tolkien’s original jacket designs, however, have been adapted for use on later editions.

Other art by Tolkien

Tolkien made hundreds of drawings, often purely for the joy of decoration and pattern-making. A child of the late nineteenth century, he was influenced by the graphic work of William Morris and other pattern designers of the Arts and Crafts Movement, by Art Nouveau, and by Art Deco. A skilled calligrapher and lettering artist as well, he was inspired by the great Edward Johnston, author of the classic manual Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering, in addition to the medieval manuscripts that were part of Tolkien’s professional study.

Among his decorative drawings are several versions of the ‘Tree of Amalion’, which bears different kinds of leaves and flowers. It is a visual representation of the Tree of Tales referred to by Tolkien in his essay On Fairy-stories, and linked to the painting of a great tree described in his story Leaf, by Niggle. Also among his papers are many doodles that he made in coloured pen while solving newspaper crossword puzzles. Some of these are similar to decorative ‘heraldic devices’ Tolkien drew to represent Elves and Men in the ‘Silmarillion’. Others, he decided, were not simply doodles but designs for tiles, carpets, and other ‘artefacts’ from his legendarium.

All of the pictures by Tolkien mentioned in this article are conveniently reproduced in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (HarperCollins UK, 1995) by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. An earlier collection, which includes a few works not in Artist and Illustrator, is Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien (George Allen & Unwin, 1979), edited by Christopher Tolkien from earlier reproductions on calendars. Selections of his original paintings and drawings have been exhibited from time to time, but for the most part are too fragile to be frequently on view.