On our big New York day trip, the stop I was most looking forward to was visiting the Morgan Library to see the Tolkien exhibition. As a long-time Tolkien fan* being able to see the actual artwork that I grew up with on the covers** was super exciting.
*Lord of the Rings is on the short list of books my wife had to read when when we got together and I’m in the process of reading them now with my eldest.
**Specifically the Ballantine editions that published in the 1970s.
I don’t have much to say about the book illustrations aside from how great it is to see them in person. It’s always nice to see how he envisioned Middle Earth and being able to see the actual brush strokes is especially wonderful.
The best part of the exhibition though is all the ephemera related to how he developed the books. His working maps with multiple layers of revised geography. His lettering sketches where he’s working out how the fire writing or other illustrations will look. Notes about units and how Hobbits will measure distance or volume. Timelines so he can keep the multiple storylines synchronized.
Much of this information didn’t make it into the Lord of the Rings Appendices. Instead I’ve seen people reassemble and compile it after the fact. It’s fantastic to see that he considered it all during development.
Related to this, I love the production notes and how his desires for the artwork printing was more than the printer was able to do at the time. From the red sun and dragon on the classic Hobbit cover to the silver on black desire for printing the Doors of Durin* it’s nice to imagine what things could have looked like. I can’t help but wonder why no one’s printed a copy of Lord of the Rings which follows Tolkien’s desired artwork reproduction.
*So as to mimic the look of Mithril on rock.
Finally, there were a lot of items that didn’t relate to Middle Earth but which demonstrated Tolkien’s development as a graphic artist. I kind of loved these too. His sketches and doodles are wonderful. You get a sense of his esthetics and his love of lettering and it was great of to see these with my kids so they could see how doodling is a way of practicing skills.
There’s also an amazing letter from his mom—who has the same hand lettering that he uses throughout his books. I’d always thought that his lettering was something he practiced and created himself. It turns out that he owes much of it to his mom. And that’s pretty cool.