Artists in Middle-Earth: from text to image
Since October 2017, I have been working on a thesis on interior illustrations for J.R.R Tolkien's Middle-earth narratives, under the supervision of Isabelle Gadoin and Vincent Ferré.
In the field in Tolkien-related studies, the place granted to illustration is reduced to a few research studies and the three beautiful books by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond on J.R.R. Tolkien’s art as an illustrator. As for the other artists who dedicated themselves to Middle-Earth, they are seldom the subjects of studies and often are the authors of the books displaying their art. The most exemplary cases are those of Alan Lee, to whose bibliography of illustrated Tolkien books was recently added The Fall of Gondolin. The other English-speaking artists to have worked on Tolkien’s texts – Pauline Baynes, Jemima Catlin, Ferguson Dewar, Eric Fraser, Ingahild Grathmer, Michael Hague, Francis Mosley, Ted Nasmith and David Wyatt – have not been studied in a comparative analysis such as the one this thesis offers to draw.
The richness of these artists’ corpuses – so much enjoyed by a wide audience but so little-known – demands a more exhaustive work on a larger scale, and the reachability of some of them is an exceptional opportunity to make sure that such a study remains faithful to their artistic ambition.
The research focuses on the processes by which artists approach the author’s words to create illustrations. Considering the varied purposes of such artworks, the research is primarily concerned with inside illustrations for the narratives taking place in Middle-earth.
Questioning the passage from a text to an image is all the more relevant in the prospect of a comparison with J.R.R. Tolkien’s own drawings and watercolours, the ones for The Hobbit having been published in his lifetime while his research sketches for other Middle-Earth narratives were not. The exhibitions held by the Oxford Weston Library in 2018 and by the BnF in 2019-2020, follow several retrospectives which have highlighted the graphic works of the author.
Variations of tone between the different tales being undeniable, a thorough study will question the influence of the writing style and focus of each text on the artworks, including on Tolkien’s own art.
In spite of the artists’ new publications over the last few years, their art has inspired more articles than substantial research studies. A thesis devoted to their production will shed light on the almost exhaustive work of illustration they have undertaken since the middle of the 20th century and the way Tolkien’s texts have permeated their careers.