John Howe in Tolkien’s footsteps: exhibition review

From June 25 2023 to January 28 2024, the Hélène and Edouard Leclerc Foundation for Culture is hosting the exhibition “Following the trails of Tolkien and the medieval imaginary world. Paintings and drawings of John Howe”. I visited it in November, over two days, and here are my thoughts on it.

View of the entrance ©FHEL – Nathalie Savale

The Hélène and Edouard Leclerc Foundation, or FHEL, is set in an old convent in the heart of the seaside town of Landerneau, in French Brittany. The buildings have a complex history, shaped by the industrialisation of the town and the purchase of the place by the Leclerc brand, first to turn it into a store, and then for this exhibition centre. The Foundation thus boasts huge and modern facilities, in which artworks can literally spread out.

During my two visits (on a Tuesday and a Thursday), I was expecting at least a little queueing at the entrance, but lo and behold, it was extremely quiet. Perfect conditions to enjoy the exhibit at leisure. A friend had told me to plan for a two-hour visit, and I ended up spending 2 hours and a half the first time, almost rushing the last two rooms.

View of the first room – personal picture

The first room keeps the rest of the scenography a mystery. Visitors find on the first wall a varied selection of works relating to J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, but also to historical sources (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and contemporary novels (Robin Hobb, G.R.R. Martin). On another wall, drawings and watercolours invite visitors to dive into the atmosphere of the Shire, with the help of a life-size reproduction of Howe’s painting showing the entrance of Bag-End. Then, the room’s third section retraces the beginnings of Howe’s career, with his arrival in Strasbourg to study at the School of Decorative Arts at the end of the 1970s. Here as well, a gigantic panel attracts the eye to the intricacies of the dream-like architectures inspired by the Strasbourg cathedral.

This first room and its multitude of themes gives a taste of the exhibition’s scope, that is to say a huge retrospective of Howe’s art. Beyond this section, the visitors discover the layout of the place, with a large central path and rooms opening on each side. In the main corridor, huge luminous panels reproduce some of Howe’s artworks.

One wall of each of these adjacent rooms is devoted to a huge reproduction of an artwork by Howe in relation to the theme of the room. The only drawback is that the cards for each artwork displayed on those walls are either pushed back to one corner or printed on the decorated surface, hampering the visitors interested in identifying each piece. But it really is a small snag in an otherwise fantastical and awe-inspiring scenography.

View of the central corridor – personal picture

Most of the works presented here will be familiar to fans of the artist, except the very last room, devoted to his work for The Rings of Power. I was especially curious about it, because although I’d thoroughly studied the exhibition catalogue before my coming (to write a review for Tolkiendil available here), those designs were not included for copyright reasons.

Like with his work for Peter Jackson’s two trilogies, Howe sketched locations and objects as well as created digital paintings to set the mood for specific segments. Similarly to the rest of the exhibition, some of these designs are magnified and presented on large panels so that the visitors can enjoy their details. One of them surprised me, because it depicts the encounter between Ulmo and Tuor, a scene from the First Age that is not supposed to appear in the series. Is it a clue that there will be a flashback in season 2? Did Amazon get the rights to some stories in order to enrich future screenplays? Only time will tell, with a season 2 release announced for Autumn 2024.

View of the last room – personal picture

Middle-earth pictures are the focus of the exhibition, but they share space here and there with other works, for instance personal paintings by Howe, and even artworks lent by other institutions. It can sometimes blur the itinerary, as with William Morris’s pieces exhibited in two different spots of the exhibition. The link with John Howe is a little distant because it needs the mediation of J.R.R. Tolkien, but written panels make sure it is clear by devoting space to the author’s life, works and major themes.

View of the scenography – personal picture

Among the artworks lent are a small statue of saint Georges, a 15th-century sword, a painting by Yan’dargent depicting Les Lavandières de la nuit (“The night’s washerwomen”), and a drawing by Gertrude James showing the castle of Chillon, in Switzerland. The latter is not put into context in the room where it is shown, entitled “Drawing cities and castles”. It is a lovely pencil and white gouache study on brown paper. I couldn’t find out who the artist was until I dug through the social media posts shared by the FHEL and found this explanation:

John Howe took great care to preserve the only drawing made by his grandmother, Gertrude James, in 1890, when she was only 16!
She took inspiration from a postcard showing the castle of Chillon, built on the island of the same name, on the shores of Lake Léman, Switzerland. This drawing is shown in the exhibition, in the section devoted to Howe’s architectural drawings, as a nod. (My translation.)

View of Gertrude James’s drawing and its presentation – personal picture

This type of hint, although I wish it had been made clear in the card below the artwork, shows the curators’ thoughtfulness and enthusiasm for their work. The mere number of artworks would make this exhibition worth a visit, but I think they are particularly well served by a beautiful scenography that invites the visitors to step inside John Howe’s illustrations and enables them to lose themselves in the imagined architectures and fantastical landscapes born from his imagination.

A Hobbit determined to get settled in Bag-End and never leave again – personal picture

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Marie Bretagnolle (11 décembre 2023). John Howe in Tolkien’s footsteps: exhibition review. Tolkien & illustration. Consulté le 13 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

3 réflexions au sujet de « John Howe in Tolkien’s footsteps: exhibition review »

    1. Hello Valmer! To my knowledge it is not planned for this exhibition to tour anywhere, but John Howe’s artworks are regularly on display in Europe (I saw them in 2019 in Luxembourg) so there will be other opportunities if you can’t make it to this one. The catalogue is especially nice, so I recommend it!

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