The Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition has moved to New York’s Morgan Library where a series of talks and events has been planned. The programs for both children and adults have been so successful that they are pretty well sold out.
Here is the Morgan program, which started in January with Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s talk on “Tolkien and the Visual Image” on January 31. The New York Tolkien Conference and Fellowship is organizing a symposium on “Tolkien and Inspiration” on March 16-17 with some great speakers — unfortunately, also sold out. The only available tickets seem to be VIP passes to the Shire-themed “Long Expected Party.” Let’s hope that some videos or reports emerge from all these activities!
The Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition in Oxford last summer and now at the Morgan Library in New York turns a spotlight on Tolkien as an artist. Being able to see a range of his work, from his patterned doodles on newspaper crossword pages to his Hobbit illustrations, demonstrates how visual art was integral to his creative imagination. There’s something special about seeing the art in person, as if you can move one step closer to the actual hand that produced the work. And sometimes a visit can give you a chance to see the artwork in a new light.
One exhibit that surprised me was Tolkien’s sketchbook opened to the picture, “Alder by a stream.” I had seen the reproduction in Hammond and Scull’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator (fig. 7) and it’s in Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (page 129). Seeing it in real life, though, revealed a smaller notebook than I had imagined, which made the actual watercolour a lovely little pastoral image. (It measures 90 x 130 mm / 3.5 x 5.2 inches). And it was only then that I realized that it was painted around 1906, when Tolkien was still in his early teens.
And here’s another image that I wish I could go back to re-view, Tolkien’s illustration of Rivendell.
Those of you who can go to the Morgan Library in New York to see it in person, or even those of us who will make do with a reproduction now have another fact to incorporate into our viewing. Recently in brief comments by Christopher Tolkien on the occasion of his visit to the Aubusson tapestries illustrating some of Tolkien’s artwork – another event that recognizes Tolkien as an illustrator – he told a story of how one night when he was a child he came to his father while he was painting the image of Rivendell and what happened then. You can hear the story at 3:45 in the video below (in French, with English and Spanish subtitles).
How can we look at “Rivendell” without thinking of the child’s tear and the father’s patient kindness that are forever part of the image now, for me anyway. I wonder if some people visiting the Morgan Library will think of this late-night scene between Christopher and his father when looking at “Rivendell.”
Edit, Feb. 18: I have heard from some people that they are finding it difficult or impossible to read the English subtitles in the above video. For a transcript of the subtitles as they appear in the video, click here.
The Morgan Library along with the New York Tolkien Fellowship are sponsoring a series of talks to accompany the exhibition, and I’ll post details of these along with a few other commentaries on the exhibit in a day or two. For now, though, I’ll take one more look back at the Bodleian version of the exhibition, where a series of talks also took place. One of these featured myth specialist Marina Warner and Tolkien scholars Dimitra Fimi and Verlyn Flieger. Their discussion was wide-ranging: language and mythology and the history of fantasy and so many other things. But at one moment in the Q & A, the talk turned to Tolkien’s artwork and its influence on his writing.
At around 1:07:10 in the video linked below, the speakers discuss the importance of maps and other images to Tolkien’s creative process, and then in a response to a question about the role of images, Verlyn Flieger (at around 1:09:45) gives a brief example to explain how Tolkien “is writing to the image.”
I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence, but Professor Flieger’s example of the sketch of Cirith Ungol drawn in the margins of a manuscript draft is exactly the image that my co-author Jeff MacLeod and I discussed in our Tolkien Studies article, “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer” (vol. 14, 2017, pp. 115-31). As Professor Flieger is one of the editors who oversaw the publication of our article, I’m hoping she was channelling our argument! You can read more about our essay here.
Last week, I posted about a recently published article that I co-authored with my colleague Jeff MacLeod on Tolkien as artist and writer, and I mentioned some of the secondary sources that we used in that essay. Today, I want to supplement the bibliography in our essay with a couple of other resources and an upcoming event for anyone who is interested in seeing and studying Tolkien’s artwork.
The exhibition that I am very much looking forward to is Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, running from June to October this year. This event brings together manuscripts from the Oxford collection and from the Tolkien Archive in Marquette University in the US and promises to show some of Tolkien’s watercolour illustrations for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, paintings in his Book of Ishness, maps, dust jacket designs, and even some personal artefacts such as boxes of paints and coloured pencils.
While I have been fortunate enough to work with some of Tolkien’s manuscripts, his original drawings are not usually accessible to the regular scholar. This will be a rare opportunity — if not to actually handle — at least to see some of his artwork firsthand. For those who can’t come to Oxford for this exhibition, the Bodleian will be publishing in June what they describe as a “richly illustrated book.”
The Tolkien Art Index
Here’s an extremely useful new resource for the study of Tolkien’s art: The Tolkien Art Index. The creation of Erik Mueller-Harder at Vermont Softworks, this database aims to list every published instance of Tolkien’s artwork. Each of the 463 items has a unique accession number and identifies the Marquette or Bodleian manuscript in which it appears. Ample tags allow you to search in various ways. For example, you can find images by medium (“blue pen”); content (“mountains-hills”); location (“Mordor”), and more — you have to sample it yourself to understand the full range of possibilities! All of the published sources are listed with dates, page numbers, and notes. The only thing that is lacking at the moment is permission to include thumbnail images of all of the items. Let’s hope this will be forthcoming, but even without that, The Tolkien Art Index should be an invaluable tool for anyone studying Tolkien’s artwork. If you are attending the Kalamazoo conference this spring, you can hear Erik speak about the Art Index in the 2018 Tolkien Seminar on May 9th.
The Illustrator Mary Fairburn and Tolkien
Jeff and I were pleasantly surprised to see another article on Tolkien and art in the latest volume of Tolkien Studies right next to our essay on Tolkien as an artist and writer. Paul Tankard writes about Tolkien’s correspondence with Mary Fairburn in his essay, “‘Akin to my own Inspiration’: Mary Fairburn and the Art of Middle-earth” (Tolkien Studies, vol. 14, pp. 133 – 154). Fairburn’s illustrations were featured in the 2015 Tolkien Calendar but were not published in Tolkien’s lifetime. Tankard’s essay examines Tolkien’s views on illustration and his opinions of various illustrators. Another essay to add to your bibliography if you’re studying Tolkien’s views on art and illustration!