The teardrop

Although Tolkien is primarily known as a writer and a myth maker, he was just as obsessed with drawing and painting. As an amateur visual artist, he drew and painted his drawings and illustrations in the same minute detail as he did in his mythology. Probably the neatest phrasing of his creative process can be read in the short story Leaf, by Niggle – the only work of his which was written, as he stated later, almost at one go, in a few hours, and he didn’t have to rewrite it again and again as he did for so with his other works. The protagonist of the story, Niggle, is a painter, “not a very successful one, partly because he had many other things to do. Most of these things he thought were a nuisance; but he did them fairly well when he could not get out of them: which (in his opinion) was far too often. … He had a number of pictures on hand; most of them were too large and ambitious for his skill. He was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees. He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, trying to catch its shape, and its sheen, and the glistening of dewdrops on its edges. Yet he wanted to paint a whole tree, with all of its leaves in the same style, and all of them different.”

Of course, most of Tolkien’s drawings are connected with his writings and his own mythology of Middle Earth in particular, on which he worked his entire life. But he liked to draw and paint in general, too. He made sketches of everyday family life in 1918, when he and his wife and their son, still a baby, could be together for a longer period of time, after a period in their first years of marriage when they were separated by the war. He made paintings to accompany the letters that he wrote to his sons in the name of Father Christmas between 1920 and 1943. And he drew various doodles on the sheets of The Times and the Daily Telegraph beside the crossword puzzle, maybe with a similar absent-mindedness with which he wrote the very first line of The Hobbit on the back of a school certificate. The recent exhibition of the Bodleian Library of Oxford – which is currently on display in Paris until 16 February – gives a comprehensive picture of these drawings and illustrations, among other aspects of Tolkien’s life.

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However, the most heartwarming commentary on Tolkien’s visual arts – and on the author himself – is that anecdote which was recalled by his third son and executor of his father’s literary heritage, Christopher, the opening of the exhibition of Aubusson tapestries based on Tolkien’s illustrations at the former Cistercian abbey of Thoronet in January last year:

“I should explain that my father used to work very very late at night, for his painting and writing. And I, when I was very very young, very very very young, at night I used to worry about my father, in that way: was he still alive? One night when the whole house was silent I went downstairs to find my father and there he was. I was so relieved, poor little idiot, I started to cry and one of the tears, one tear but a substantial one, fell on the painting. Imagine that! But my father wasn't angry at all. What he did was, he got his small paintbrush and he rubbed out every trace of the tear. And he had to change the leaves in the tree a little bit, because the tear had fallen on the beautiful tree in the background. The title of the painting is «Rivendell».”

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