Tolkien began his art practice in his youth; he learned how to draw and paint from his mother, and later, at school. In the 1910s, during his undergraduate years at Exeter College, Tolkien filled pages of his sketchbook with abstract settings from a technicolor fairy world, places redolent of Middle-earth. He sketched “distant mountain landscapes, or paths through dark forests,” McQuillen described. “That kind of imagery was so embedded in who he was. It comes out later in the stories.”
His first illustration that was directly related to Middle-earth, The Shores of Faery, dated May 1915, depicted Kôr, the city of elves in Valinor. A poem opposite the watercolor heralds the first appearance of Eärendil, a character in The Silmarillion, who finds the city abandoned by the gods. “It’s a beautiful drawing…but it’s also great to see the birth of Middle-earth,” McQuillen said. Being able to see that “initial moment,” he added, is “rare.”
Tolkien’s drawings weren’t limited to places in far-flung worlds or distant eras, however. He sketched nature prolifically and made artworks for his children. For example, he made a drawing of an owl for his son, Michael, to assuage the boy’s fears from a recurring avian nightmare, as well as yearly illustrated letters from Father Christmas. He was committed to his family, only turning to hobbits, elves, wizards, and orcs in his spare time. “This was not his main line of work, and he always felt guilty for taking time away from his academic duties and his children to work on his so-called ‘fairy stories,’” McQuillen said.