Tolkien's mighty imagination: His paintings match the broad sweep of his fantastic writing

Tolkien’s mighty imagination: His paintings match the broad sweep of his fantastic writing

The Culture
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
[NC Register] 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.

VIDEO: [Morgan Library & Museum] The largest collection ever assembled of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original drawings, manuscripts and maps [Dec 17, 2018]


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 3×5 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Roman Catholic, a fact worth noting in 1912, as it still had not been two decades since the Catholic bishops of England rescinded their ban on Catholic students attending Oxford or Cambridge, for fear of endangering their faith.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.”

This article continues at [NC Register] You’ve Read Tolkien’s Books — But Have You Seen His Paintings?

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Check Also
Church on the move in western Africa as 2,000 congregations sign up to festival of revival
Church on the move in western Africa as 2,000 congregations sign up to festival of revival
[Christian Newswire] For the past three years, the Luis Palau Association and several partner ministries ...