Watercolor of Rivendell, an elven realm in the Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. 1937. From Tolkien Maker of Middle-Earth by Catherine McIlwaine.

In 1949, a well-respected but fairly unknown professor of Old and Middle English at the University of Oxford released the third and final book of a fantasy trilogy which, to his own delight and his publisher’s great surprise, would become one of the best selling novels ever written. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the tip of the iceberg of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythological and legendary storytelling. Within its many pages he found the pinnacle of his novels, short stories, essays and the languages, places, and people that influenced them.

Troll’s Hill by J.R.R. Tolkien from The Hobbit. Early 1930s. From Tolkien Maker of Middle-Earth by Catherine McIlwaine.

His interest in traditional folktales led to a wide range of historic contexts for his stories. Not only did he employ words to paint his masterpieces but he also was equipped to use drawing and painting. Although he did not consider himself a great artist, his third son Christopher finished most of his visual works, the artistic capabilities he did have certainly serviced his strengths as writer. Thus, the depths of his understanding of a story was immense.

Conversation with Smaug from the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. From Tolkien Maker of Middle-Earth by Catherine McIlwaine.

Death of Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien from The Hobbit. From Tolkien Maker of Middle-Earth by Catherine McIlwaine.

J.R.R. Tolkien needed long stretches of solitude to perfect his creations. However, he had a small group of colleagues who met together as an informal discussion group and they profoundly affected the works that he produced. Naming themselves the ‘Inklings,’ they professed to be exploring the foundation of writing and religious faiths alike. To do so, these gatherings would consist of reading from a piece of poetry or literature, typically Norse or otherwise mythological, with some review and discussion to follow.

Left to Right: Commander James Dundas-Grant, Colin Hardie, Dr. Robert E. Humphrey Harvard, C.S. Lewis, and Peter Harvard at the Trout pub. Godstow. c.1947. (Image provided courtesy of the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton IL. From Tolkien Maker of Middle-Earth by Catherine McIlwaine.

From left to right: G.C.N. Mackarness, Charles Cartwright, J.r.r. Tolkien, Anthony Shakespeare, and B.J. Tolhurst. Exeter College, Oxford. May, 1914. From Tolkien Maker of Middle-Earth by Catherine McIlwaine.

Although the membership of this band of brothers was fluid, there were several statuary members among whom included C.S. Lewis, another author who would come to acclaimed literary success. Together within the confines of a sixteenth century pub both camaraderie and conflict would occur over the variety of topics brought forth during the week.

Garden-gate, Chateau de Sorel, Dreux, Eure.

At our office we meet every Friday afternoon for our “Sketch Club” after our work for the week is complete. Similarly to the Inklings, we spend time practicing the creative process and following it with a group discussion afterwards.

Tower Clocks and Bells.

Rock outpost with an uncanny similarity to Tolkien’s imagination.

What we draw is not the sole focus, so much as how we draw. Here we get to test our ideas, practice techniques with a variety of mediums, and challenge ourselves in an environment conducive to personal improvement. Sometimes we focus on very practical elements like a certain patterning technique, while at other times our reinterpretations of an image exercises our visual storytelling muscles. The masters of this craft, like Bertram Goodhue and O.R. Eggers, are always used as points of reference.

Folly in the Adirondack Mountains.

In the end, our stories are better because we have rubbed shoulders. As Tolkien remarked after the passing of his fellow Inklings member CS Lewis, “The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement… But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The Lord of the Rings to a conclusion.”This sentiment is true for our office as well. Our pursuit of creating places of beauty and meaning is changed in the best way through our club’s camaraderie.

Basilica of the Little Flower. San Antonio, Texas.

An ink and wash conceptual rendering by our principal architect.

Sketch of the World War I Memorial, Washington D.C.