Unseen Tolkien illustrations to be displayed at the Bodleian

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Three unseen Tolkien illustrations will be coming to Oxford this summer as part of a major exhibition at the Bodleian Library. ‘Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth’ will highlight a number of his works, featuring an array of manuscripts, letters, maps and artworks.

Many of the exhibits are part of the Bodleian’s Tolkien archive, the world’s largest collection of original Tolkien material. The library hopes to reveal Tolkien’s “amazing legacy from his genius as an artist, poet, linguist, and author to his academic career and private life.”

As the exhibition reflects, Tolkien was an accomplished artist, and fantastical creatures often sparked his imagination. These creatures are prominent in the artworks on display, including scenes of the dragon Smaug submerged in a mound of treasures and Bilbo Baggins travelling down a river to the huts of the raft elves.

The dust jacket that Tolkien designed for the 1937 edition of The Hobbit will also be displayed, showing the mountain peaks through which Bilbo travels on his adventures.

The three unseen works however, are more abstract and are among rare paintings and drawings that were created by the author. They include ‘Linquë súrissë’, named in Quenya, one of the Elvish languages that Tolkien created. This picture of bamboo dates to the 1960s and has never been on display before.

Another sketch features a geometric design that incorporates Elvish lettering. It was drawn on the back of an agenda for a meeting at Merton College in 1957. Although these images feature elvish text, they are not directly linked to the events, characters or places of Middle Earth.

Speaking to the Guardian, the Bodleian’s Tolkien archivist, Catherine McIlwaine, commented that the three new artworks “don’t relate to his fantasy works directly, but two of them have the Elvish text on them, which links them directly to his writings on Middle-earth, the imagined world where The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were set.”

She said the three unpublished artworks were all quite different from many of Tolkien’s other paintings. “You wouldn’t look at them and think ‘that’s Tolkien’, as you might with his watercolours. They show that he was always experimenting with his artwork. He wasn’t afraid to try totally new styles.”

The exhibition aims to take viewers on a journey through Tolkien’s famous works, his early abstract paintings from The Book of Ishness, the tales he wrote for his children, rare objects that belonged to Tolkien, exclusive fan mail and private letters.

Anticipating huge interest in the exhibition, the Bodleian will be using a ticketing system for the first time. The exhibition, titled Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, runs from 1 June until 28 October and the library is also releasing a catalogue with more than 300 images of Tolkien materials.