I’ve written to you before about my family’s enjoyment of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Undoubtedly Tolkien is one of the best known authors of all time, but what is less known is Tolkien’s use of visual arts as an aid and accompaniment for his written works. Now, at the Bodleian Libraries’ Weston Library of Oxford University, fans of Tolkien can see an exhibition of his works. Michael FitzGerald writes of the exhibition in The Wall Street Journal:
Under the guidance of his mother, who came from a family of engravers, Tolkien began drawing and painting as a child. By the time he entered Oxford’s Exeter college in 1911, he was an accomplished amateur, whose skill ranged from architectural renderings of the city’s historical buildings to nearly abstract, fantastical landscapes rendered in brilliant watercolors. While only the daydreams of an undergraduate, these imagined views were among the first seeds of his mature creations.
In fact, Tolkien was a consummate amateur. He never received professional training as an artist or a writer of fiction. He earned a living as a professor of English at Leeds and Oxford.
As he began composing “The Hobbit” in the late 1920s and ’30s, Tolkien relied on his skills as a visual artist to bring to life the places his characters inhabited. Readers of the novel are familiar with the intricately finished watercolors he painted in 1937 for the first American edition of the book. His style benefited from the work of Arthur Rackham and other artists in a great age of illustration, but Tolkien also infused his images with the sinuous lines and scintillating patterns of Art Nouveau. Most famously, “The Hill: Hobbiton-Across-the Water” presents an image of tilled fields, blossoming trees and pristine architecture bordering a road that meanders to Bilbo’s round front door high on a hill. The abundant detail of this scene conveys a fuller impression of the Shire than any description in “The Hobbit.” Sometimes Tolkien’s visual imagination surpassed his verbal descriptions.