Tolkien’s favourite landscape artist?

It’s finally time to wake this blog up. Last semester’s heavy teaching load, some eldercare responsibilities, and research commitments meant that I had to focus on other things, but I foresee a more reasonable schedule now.  I have so many hoarded items I’ve been meaning to write about, so let’s start pretty much where I left off last summer – with the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition at the Bodleian, now recently opened at the Morgan Library in New York.

I had the good fortune to visit the exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford last summer. By all accounts, it was a huge success, running from June to October 2018. Tolkien archivist Catherine McIlwaine organized this exhibition of Tolkien’s paintings, letters, photos, maps, doodles, and other memorabilia. Once in the main exhibition hall in the Weston Library (part of the Bodleian network), you could wander at will or sit and gaze, and linger as long as you liked. Seeing Tolkien’s original paintings was a rare treat – up to now, a sight reserved for very few people. I was impressed by how finely detailed and precise his watercolours were. It was fun to see his desk and colouring pencils – on display was a full case of Polychrome coloured pencils in various shades of green – somehow I would have expected that. On another shelf, we could see his jars of Reeves’ poster colours.

One item that I found intriguing were the pictures that were hanging on the wall by his desk, loaned to the Bodleian by the Tolkien family.  According to Catherine McIlwaine’s magnificent book, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, which catalogues the exhibition, Tolkien bought these prints by William Russell Flint when a student at Oxford and kept them for the rest of his life. They depict the Oxfordshire countryside and originally illustrated Matthew Arnold’s The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis. According to McIlwaine: “Tolkien continued to look at the paintings for the rest of his life and they hung in his rooms wherever he resided. They were among a select group of personal items which he took to his last residence, a small flat in Merton Street provided by Merton College in 1972” (p. 284).

You can find pictures of the prints on page 285 of McIlwaine’s book.  Below, you can view them as illustrations in a 1911 American edition of Arnold’s book, available through the Hathi Trust Digital Library. (Note that the colours of the book illustrations look darker than the pictures in McIlwaine’s book).

Images:  William Russell Flint watercolour illustrations for Matthew Arnold’s The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis. Top left: “The stripling Thames at Bob-Lock-Hithe”; Top right: “The Line of Festal Lights in Christ Church Hall”; bottom left: “Its Fir-Topped Hurst, its Farms, its Quiet Fields”; bottom right: “And the Eye Travels Down to Oxford’s Towers.”  (Click on individual images to enlarge).

What instantly struck me when looking at the pictures – though I had to peer through glass at a far wall to see them – was that the style could have influenced some of Tolkien’s early watercolour landscapes. As it turns out, the same thought had already occurred to Catherine McIlwaine, who comments in her book that there’s a resemblance to Tolkien’s “King’s Norton from Bilberry Hill” (painted in 1913) and “Lambourn. Berks” (1912). The latter, according to Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, was a sketch Tolkien made on a walking tour (Artist & Illustrator, p. 17) and the former was an outdoor sketch as well. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a young man’s sketches with a professional artist’s published work, but take a look at the two pictures below. What do you think? Is there a distinct influence, or is it a general stylistic resemblance that would have been shared by many watercolour landscape artists of the time?

Images:  left: Tolkien, Lambourn, Berks. Watercolour. Artist & Illustrator, fig. 11; right: Tolkien, King’s Norton from Bilberry Hill. Watercolour. Artist & Illustrator, fig 16. (Click on individual images to enlarge).

I’ll be posting more snippets about the exhibition, both in Oxford and New York, in the days ahead, but if you’re interested in a more extensive account (or if you’re looking forward to the New York version), I don’t think you can find a more thorough description than this post on the Tolkien Collector’s Guide, “Tolkien’s Maker of Middle-earth Exhibition at The Bodleian – A Retrospective.”

For further reading:

Catherine McIlwaine. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2018.

The standard work on Tolkien’s art is Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. HarperCollins, 2004.

In Scull and Hammond’s J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (pp.1483–1503), they included a list of published art by Tolkien, which they updated in July 2018 to include items in the Bodleian exhibition publications.  “Published Art by J.R.R. Tolkien, From the J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide. Revised July 2018” [pdf]

6 responses to “Tolkien’s favourite landscape artist?”

  1. Thanks for this, Anna. The image “Its fir-topped Hurst, its farms, its quiet fields”, with the lone tree on top of the distant hill reminded me at once of Tolkien’s “The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-water.”


    • I’m glad you said that, Tom! I was thinking the same thing, but I had been staring at those pictures for so long that I wasn’t sure if I was trying too hard to find similarities. Probably the only reason I first thought of Tolkien’s other sketch, Kings Norton, is that I’ve often used that one in my writing and talks as an example of his style, so it’s at the forefront of my thoughts.


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