Pauline Baynes

“Miss Baynes’ pictures must have reached Merton on Saturday; but owing to various things I did not see them till yesterday. I merely write to say that I am pleased with them beyond even the expectations aroused by the first examples. They are more than illustrations, they are a collateral theme. I showed them to my friends whose polite comment was that they reduced my text to a commentary on the drawings.”
–J.R.R. Tolkien to Allen & Unwin, March 16, 1949 (Letter 120 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien)

She was born in 1922 in Hove, Sussex; she became the chosen and favorite illustrator of the notoriously fussy Tolkien. Her elegant faux-medieval drawings illustrate and enclose several of his shorter works, including Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wootton Major, and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. If it were possible to travel to Middle-earth by staring at a piece of art, the twelve-year-old me would have done so via her color map of Tolkien’s world that was published as a poster in the late 1960s. She also provided the loveliest covers of any of the popular editions of his major works, the British editions of the early 1970s, before it became necessary to sell all fantasy with sturm, drang, and tinfoil. Her work had the restraint and deep, serious whimsy of the best medieval illumination; it calls to mind R. A. Lafferty’s observation that “the opposite of ‘funny’ isn’t ‘serious’; the opposite of both ‘funny’ and ‘serious’ is ‘sordid.'”

In 1999, Teresa and I went for an early-morning walk outside Hawes, in the Yorkshire Dales; we found ourselves on the Pennine Path. More to the point, we realized we were in a wrap-around, 360-degree Pauline Baynes illustration. We managed to get a few photos that convey a sense of that.

As far as I can tell, there are no good reproductions of her work on the web; the scans and photos visible to search engines are all small, muddy, or both, a terrible thing for an artist whose work was all about clarity. I wish I could link to a scan of her illustrations for Tolkien’s poem “The Hoard.”

She died a few days ago, according to eminent Tolkien scholar David Bratman. She deserves notice. For me, at least, her images were Tolkien: the medieval re-imagined, not as dark barbarism or Gothic monstrosity, but a fully-fledged cosmos of knowing sophistication. Humor and humanity. There are dragons, and we can also laugh.

UPDATE: Via David Bratman, more (with excellent pictures!) from Brian Sibley.



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