An Unknown Vision of Middle-Earth
The Lord of the Rings has, almost from the moment it was published, inspired painters and visual artists of all kinds to depict scenes and characters from the novel and its world. The three volumes appeared over the course of fifteen months, 1954–5; and J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to his publisher in April 1956 that he was being “honoured or pestered by would-be illustrators”. In his seminal essay “On Fairy Stories” (1947), he argued against illustrations for stories of the fantasy or fairy-tale kind: “However good in themselves, illustrations do little good to fairy-stories. The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that … literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular”.
He did not make an exception for his own work. Indeed, although he was himself an accomplished amateur artist, who had illustrated his own children’s book, The Hobbit, and had for his own amusement made a considerable number of pictures based on scenes in The Lord of the Rings, they were not conceived as illustrations. On March 14, 1967, he wrote to his publisher, Rayner Unwin, “As far as an English edition goes, I myself am not at all anxious for The Lord of the Rings to be illustrated by anybody whether a genius or not”.
Since Tolkien’s death, however, The Lord of the Rings has been illustrated by a number of artists, some of whom have quasi-official status, having been commissioned by Tolkien’s publishers, Allen and Unwin and (now) HarperCollins. John Howe, Roger Garland, Ted Nasmith and others have illustrated “Tolkien Calendars”. In 1992, for the hundredth anniversary of Tolkien’s birth, an edition of the book was published with fifty full-page colour illustrations by Alan Lee. Lee and Howe worked as conceptual designers for Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films of The Lord of the Rings, and some version of their (and Jackson’s) vision has been stamped on the story, at least for some readers (and certainly for non-readers). Of course, the work of none of these was seen or approved by the author.
Among visual artists whose work Tolkien did see and approve was the English illustrator Pauline Baynes. She painted the two famous vistas – the originals of which Tolkien bought – first used on the slipcase of the scarce three-volume deluxe edition of The Lord of the Rings (1963) and subsequently on the cover of the much-reprinted single-volume paperback edition (1968). In 1970, an accomplished amateur artist, Princess Margrethe (now Queen Margrethe II) of Denmark, sent copies of some of her illustrations to Tolkien, and these were used in the Danish translations of the book (the illustrator’s name given as “Ingahild Grathmer”); from 1977 they were also used in the English editions published by the Folio Society. A major body of Tolkien-inspired works that have recently received wider publication are the 140 or so highly stylized images made in 1958–62 by Cor Blok, a Dutch professor of art. Some were exhibited in 1962–3, and from 1965 were used on the covers of the Dutch paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings. In October 2011, a comprehensive collection was published as A Tolkien Tapestry. The Tolkien Library website claims that “Cor Blok is the only artist … Tolkien admired enough to purchase some of his work”. This claim overlooks not only Pauline Baynes’s two vistas but also an interesting and complex episode in the book’s history which has until now not been publicly known.
In May 1968 Tolkien was sent a number of samples of illustrations for The Lord of the Rings by a thirty-five-year-old woman writing from Winchester. Born in London, Mary Fairburn had led a peripatetic life. In the early 1950s, in her teens and early twenties, she studied art and art teaching at the Winchester School of Art, London University, and the Slade. She first worked as an art teacher in London, and in the late 1950s took a job in southwest Iran, teaching art and music to the children of employees of an American oil company. She had converted to Catholicism at the age of eighteen, and after she returned to England from Iran in 1960, she spent a few months as a novice of Les Auxiliaires Féminines Internationales, a lay Catholic order in Belgium. When she was told that she did not have a vocation, she returned to London, and then to Winchester. In 1961, at the age of twenty-eight, she took a job teaching English in Catanzaro in Calabria, and while living there, she entered and won an art competition in nearby Amantea on the Tyrrhenian coast; she used the prize money to leave Italy, and trek via Sicily across Africa. There, on the border of Kenya and Uganda, she met a Frenchman who became her first husband.