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Unlocking Bag End: Tolkien and the Victorian Arts and Crafts Movement

In a hole in the ground there was a library, a billiard room, not to mention a luxurious smoking room with comfortable seats soft enough to get lost in.  Above there would seem to be rolling hills, and a nice round window looks out onto lush views of an idyllic countryside. 

This idyllic retreat is not set in JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, home of men, elves, orks, and hobbits.  Instead it can be found in the drawings of arts and crafts architect Edward Schroeder Prior’s plans for a promenade in West Bay, Dorset.  The town, originally called Bridport, needed to attract visitors to take advantage of the growing tourist industry to the south coast of England during the Victorian period.[1]  One way of doing this was to construct luxury hideaways for a family, providing for their every need away from home.  This Victorian version of the “build it and they will come” attitude was, sadly, doomed to failure, and the plans never came to fruition.

Prior was enlisted to create a series of buildings, including the promenade shown here.  The faint green hue is provided by a covering of “green transparent felt,” which would have covered the entire structure.  It remains unclear how boiled wool would have kept the British weather at bay, but the building was never constructed, and perhaps for this very reason.  To the left of the upper drawing there is a swimming pool, with separate areas for men and women with access to the main structure on either side.  The large space with the three windows would have held shop stalls and a small stage for a band, or any amateur dramatics the visitors wanted to inflict on the townspeople.  The round windows give the impression of ship’s portholes peering out into the sea which would have been nearby.  The overall effect is of a green hill, with the gentrified activities of the Victorian middle class taking place underneath it.

RIBA Library Drawings & Archives Collections www.ribapix.com
Edward Schroeder Prior © RIBA Library Drawings & Archives Collections www.ribapix.com

 The comparisons with Tolkien’s descriptions of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins’ home of Bag End are clear.  Tolkien tells us that the richest and poorest Hobbits maintained the old custom of living in a hole.  Bag End, was not a dank, dirty, sandy hole, but a clean place with bedrooms, bathrooms, and cellars where the Bagginses could enjoy their comfortable life (until disturbed by a vexed wizard).  Bag End’s door was a large round wooden construction built into the side of a hill, with round windows built into the side, round windows being a particular favourite of Hobbits.

Prior’s idea was to use “nature’s own textures” as he termed it.  This meant using the materials which immediately surround a proposed building, and incorporating them into its fabric.  This would mean that the building did not seem like an erratic boulder deposited as if from space onto an alien countryside, but would integrate with its surroundings, aging and developing alongside its environment.  This concern with placing architecture in the landscape can be seen in Tolkien’s drawings, a medium which Christopher Tolkien states is vital to understanding the work of his father.  Buildings frequently disappear in the author’s drawings and paintings, subsumed by trees, bushes, and vegetation.  Nature’s own textures reclaim Tolkien’s buildings, creeping over and under them, given more time they would most likely consume them.

Bag End was first described in Tolkien’s The hobbit (1937), but Prior’s drawings were drawn up in 1894.  There is no indication that Tolkien was aware of Prior’s design, so how do we account for such a similar vision?

Tolkien states that the inspiration for the Shire in one of his letters, where he writes, “The Shire […] is in fact more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee.”  Also, Tolkien’s aunt, Jane Neave, owned a farmhouse called Bag End, which he describes as “an old tumbledown manor house at the end of an untidy lane that led nowhere else.”  However, it would seem that the house was rather well kept, implying that Tolkien’s recollection of the house was shaped by some other force prior to writing The hobbit.  One possible reason is the influence of the arts and crafts movement.

The young Tolkien seemed to enjoy, at least, the literature arising from that movement.  As a first year student in Exeter College, Oxford he won a classics prize, which the dutiful author spent on three books by William Morris: The house of the Wolfings, The roots of the mountain, and The glittering plain.  Morris’ interest in the Middle Ages perhaps echoed in Tolkien’s own fantasies, filled with an idyllic vision of the past, and fantastical dreams for a utopian future.  The vehicle for Morris’ vision was the arts and crafts movement, spurred on by figures such as Augustus Welby Pugin, and John Ruskin.

There is even anecdotal evidence of some sort of friendly acquaintance between the Tolkien and Morris families somewhat later.  Unfortunately, like all good stories there does not seem to be solid proof of its existence, only a (rather wonderful) anecdote told to me by the eminent Tolkien Scholar Tom Shippey.  He told me that years ago the late Icelander Ben Benedikz’s aunt had, sometime between the wars, been sent over to stay with May Morris (William’s daughter), who lived outside of Oxford.  However, the only other person to talk to was a paid companion, and “she found it rather dreary.”  Instead it was arranged that she would go and stay with the Tolkiens.  Ben’s aunt still was not impressed however, and complained of Tolkien that “He always wanted to talk about Icelandic!”  Benedikz aunt’s displeasure, and her story, would indicate some connection between the families, and thus Tolkien’s continued interest in the arts and crafts movement’s legacy.

Prior’s own place at the heart of the movement was assured at the beginning of his career in the office of Norman Shaw, the prolific architect whose building helped shape the vision of the movement in brick and stone.  Prior ceased building in 1910 in order to take up a post at Cambridge, and later found the School of Architecture there.  The two men may have met by chance in a senior common room with port and cheese shared between them, discussing the wonderful possibility of living in a cave.  More likely, and perhaps more interestingly, the two men conjured a similar way of living because both were infused with thoughts of the arts and crafts movement, and its rallying cry to integrate man and his environment, a vision brought to its ultimate fulfilment in Middle Earth.

[1] The town’s most recent incarnation saw it change its name again, this time to “Broadchurch” for the ITV series of the same name.

To read Karl’s research in more detail, please see: Karl Kinsella, “A Preference for Round Windows: Architectural Description in the Lord of the Rings,” in Helen Conrad O’Briain, Gerard Hynes (eds.), Tolkien: The Forest and the City (Dublin, 2013), pp. 87-97.

About Karl Kinsella

Karl Kinsella is a DPhil Candidate at Keble College, Oxford. His research examines representations of architecture in twelfth-century monastic manuscripts, as well as textual descriptions of buildings. He also works for the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature. You can find his blog on the subject of medieval architecture at soffits.wordpress.com.

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