You’ve Read Tolkien’s Books — But Have You Seen His Paintings?

The extraordinary range and beauty of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work as a visual artist still surprises aficionados

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth is an exhibition on the life and art of one of the most celebrated Catholic authors of the 20th century, now (through May 12) at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. The show explores not just the literary art of J.R.R. Tolkien: a generous selection of watercolors, ink sketches, and colored pencil drawings constitute a main attraction. Yet it is more than an art exhibit: letters, photographs, ephemera and personal items (such as Tolkien’s art materials and the academic gown awarded him with the honorary D.Litt. in 1972) piece together for the gallery visitor the life of the man who wrote The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

Given the comprehensive nature of this collection of Tolkien’s art and memorabilia, it is curious how little evidence of his profound Catholic faith appears. One reminder of Tolkien’s Catholicism is not in the New York exhibit, though it was on display in the show’s first incarnation at Oxford this past fall, and appears in the exhibition’s catalogue. It is a ruled 3x5 index card from the sub-rector’s archives at Exeter College, Oxford, that summarily assesses Tolkien as a student in 1912. The top three-fourths of the card simply lists background facts, but then a red line sets off the bottom quarter, under which the first sub-rector wrote: “RC v lazy & warned re exhibn.”

The “RC,” of course, identified Tolkien as Roman Catholic, a fact worth noting in 1912, as it still had not been two decades since the Catholic bishops of England rescinded their ban on Catholic students attending Oxford or Cambridge, for fear of endangering their faith. The “v[ery] lazy” is another matter. True, Tolkien shared the sub-rector’s opinion: he wrote to his fiancée Edith Bratt, “I am so dreadfully tempted to sloth.”

The collections of paintings and drawings from Tolkien’s Oxford years may offer striking evidence to counter the charge of sloth. On the other hand, from an educational standpoint, they may prove the sub-rector’s point: why was he painting when he should have been studying? Paintings of this period include the haunting abstract fantasy images of a portfolio Tolkien called The Book of Ishnesses (an actual bound sketch book: it is part of the display). One of these images, Eeriness (January 1914) was selected for wall-size enlargement, 6 feet wide and nearly 9 feet tall. At this size, the dried bubbles from the watercolors brushed on more than a century ago are clearly visible.

Other paintings of the period reflect Tolkien’s study at the time of the Finnish epic The Kalevala. These alone are worth coming to the Morgan to see, but they won’t help exonerate Tolkien’s record at Exeter, since reading The Kalevala and studying Finnish are merely two more things he “shouldn’t have been doing” when he was supposed to be reading Greek and Latin (and, later, Old English and Old Norse) classics.

The puzzling abbreviation “warned re exhibn” on the sub-rector’s card refers to the trigger for what today’s college student would call Tolkien’s “change of major.” Tolkien was warned that his “Exhibition Scholarship” in classics would be withdrawn if he didn’t do better. He did, and the sub-rector (identified by Catherine McIlwaine as Bernard William Henderson; his successor E.A. Barber added later notes) added subsequently: “Much improved since.”

Such residue of the real life of the real person behind The Lord of the Rings is part of the attraction of Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth at the Morgan. Another is the extraordinary range and beauty of Tolkien’s work as a visual artist, which still surprises some Tolkien aficionados despite the fact that there have been at least 18 exhibitions of Tolkien’s art since 1967, when the painter and novelist was still alive. Tolkien’s images are still the least-explored manifestations of his genius.

The presentation of these works at the Morgan, organized by the Bodleian of Oxford, with the support of the Tolkien Estate, the Tolkien Trust, and the surviving members of Tolkien’s family, may just turn such neglect around. Many of Tolkien’s images in the current mounting at the Morgan, in high-resolution enlargements, fill entire walls of the gallery, like the image of Eeriness already mentioned. The viewer enters through a round door like a hobbit hole, which opens up onto a larger-than-life blow-up of Tolkien’s August 1937 watercolor “The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water.” One must literally enter into Tolkien’s vision to access the exhibit.

For the majority of Tolkien lovers who cannot get to New York before May 12, a lavishly illustrated 416-page exhibition catalogue is available wherever books are sold. It bears the title of the exhibition, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth.

If that doesn’t get everybody talking about Tolkien’s artwork, at least the Bodleian, the Morgan and the Tolkien Estate have done their part to get the word out.

The people have been duly “warned re exhibitn.”