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Old 03-25-2012, 08:20 AM   #1
Mithalwen
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Art in Middle Earth.

We know that there was music in Middle Earth, we know there was poetry and song and stories, but there seems to me that there is little visual art (even though Tolkien himself enjoyed drawing and painting). There is fine architecture (though Gondolin sounds a bit blingy for my taste), wonderful jewellery, a lot of decorative art - the Elves and dwarves perhaps in particular take pride in making even practical objects lovely - think of the unnamed elf in Lorien who comments that "..we out the thought of all that we love into the things that we make" and the various reference to things being carved or engraved.

Then there are the heraldic devices - the cover of many editions of the Silmarillion is Tolkien's design for the device of Luthien and "Artist and Illustrator" has those of other prominent characters. The ithildin design on the doors of Moria and Arwen's banner could be included in this category.

What there seems a dearth of is the visual "fine arts", there is no painting that I can think of and very little sculpture. There are Turgon's images of the two trees "wrought with elven-craft", and the figures of Isildur and Anarion at the Argonath (what is lacking in quantity surely being made up for in sheer scale).

Then the other king at the crossroads whose decapitated head is crowned with flowers but whose substitute head is a "rough-hewn stone rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead".

There may of course others that I have missed - I should make it clear that this is not one of my specialist subjects. I go to galleries and the occasional lecture have picked up a bit here and there but I am neither an executant artist nor an art historian. However I have been pondering this on and off really since seeing the film of The Fellowship of the Ring and seeing the painting of the death of Elendil in Rivendell. Now I can see it made sense as a film device but aside from the fact it reminded me of the heroic realism beloved of the Third Reich, it just seemed rather un-Elvish to paint. The carved figure supporting the shard of Narsil also jarred a little.

I can understand that the Elves might not feel the need to preserve memories this way - they are immortal, they don't change they have hyper-real memories. And if ithe Elves didn't then maybe the Numenoreans wouldn't as their culture was based on that of the elves. Was it too primitive for Elves? Were there cultural reasons for not making likenesses as there are in some cultures now? Am I just missing loads of examples? Is it one of those things that may/must have existed but aren't mentioned. I will be interested to see what more knowledgeable and observant readers might have to add.
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Old 03-25-2012, 08:31 AM   #2
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You bring up a good point, Mith. Why the lack of paintings? Perhaps it is because 3-D sculptures are, well, 3-D and therefore better?

The Rohirrim have tapestries with pictures on them in Edoras. That's also "flat art". But they are not Elves.

(Incidentally, Varie also had tapestries)

And Elves also had another way of conveying art - through visions. I mean art as in "arts and crafts", not "abilities". Art conveys certain images to the viewer; so why not consider this art?
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Old 03-25-2012, 09:45 AM   #3
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The lack of paintings might just come down to the fact that painting (especially painting on canvases) is mainly a renaissance art and thus ill-fitting for a story with a kind of medieval ring to it.

But weren't dwarves kind of sculptors and carvers? The gate to Moria, inside their Halls?

It's easy to see the Hobbits not being that much into painting or sculpting, or the elves to that matter... but the lack of mentions of painture or sculpture in Gondor I think is a bit odd as one would certainly think fex. Minas Tirith to be just a place filled with statues, floor-mosaics, wall paintings, painted windows...

It would be interesting to hear if someone had ideas about that.
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Old 03-25-2012, 10:10 AM   #4
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I think what's been said this far mostly makes sense. Also, just as a note, it occured to me that for the "outside the book" explanation of the little significance of paintings, might be that Tolkien was not so fond of "visual arts" (despite painting/drawing some stuff himself - but he was always also very vocal about how one depiction of a situation sort of limits your imagination to one fixed image of the reality described), so maybe that might also be (by a tiny part, for sure) a reason why he did not mention so much about the paintings etc. (Also, all the paintings mentioned in the book were more "non-realistic" - like, always paintings of random tree or somesuch, never stuff like "a portrait of Eärendil" etc.)

But the "statues and co. are much more appropriate, medieval-like style" seems to me one of the best and most logical arguments this far.

The important "paintings" (or drawings, rather) mentioned are, for example, on the maps (dragon on Thror's map), so it's a part of a "different genre", so to say. I quite like that, though. Not sure if I can explain why.
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Old 03-25-2012, 10:32 AM   #5
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Galadriel - I managed to cut the reference to Eorl the Young in the tapestries and not repaste - and a good point about Vaire (and Miriel) though strictly speking they are not in Middle Earth...

I don't know if the painting being a renaissance art necessarily holds... there has beem painting since early man daubed clay on his cave walls and while I suppose things like the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and the Book of Kells might fall into my category of decorative art it is surely not the case that people suddenly picked up paint brushes in 15th century Florence and became so spectacularly good about it. Medieaval art doesn't have perspective and a lot of it is devotional but it exists... There is some very ancient art in non european cultures - Indian and Oriental for example.

Ooh just found a reference into "images of men long dead" in Rath Dinen in "The Siege of Gondor" though the nature of the images - painted, sculpted or engraved is unclear. So Gondorians practised funerary art.

I can see hobbits decorating things - they liked bright colours and I can imagine they might make that cheery pottery that looks so appealing if you go on holiday to the Medditeraranean and merely gaudy in a paler Northern light. But there is a difference between having beautiful things that are functonal to making things for primarliy aesthetic reasons...
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Old 03-25-2012, 06:04 PM   #6
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The reason that paintings are not mentioned much in his work is that Tolkien did not hold painting to be the pinnacle of Art, he tends more towards the Arts & Crafts philosophy best summed up by William Morris as "Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” The Arts & Crafts movement sought to have both great craft and great beauty in all objects, and painting was just one amongst many ways of expression. They also sought to work with the natural beauty and qualities of the material being worked on, and to preserve the past and the natural environment. That's all so Elvish, it's uncanny.

In Middle-earth, there is as much beauty to be found in the packaging of a loaf of Lembas or the hilt of a sword as there is in any Art (with a capital A). In fact, these things are Art in Middle-earth. Tolkien describes them all lovingly.

There's a really fantastic essay available online that was presented at Birmingham 2005 that explains this all in so much more depth (with pictures) and I recommend it:

Ty Rosenthal Essay - The Arts & Crafts Movement and JRR Tolkien
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Old 03-25-2012, 08:27 PM   #7
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Honestly, no one had time to dwell on portraiture in the the books. The megalithic sculptures at Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings, were commented on, because they happened to be passing underneath.

Frodo: Isn't that a wonderful painting, Sam?

Sam: Well, Mr. Frodo, it may be loverly and all, but it lacks perspective.

Frodo: Lacks what?

Sam: Begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo, but it's quite off, if you don't mind me saying so. It aint got three-point perspective.

Frodo: Sam, you've been hanging around the Elves again, haven't you?

*Sam blushes*
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Old 03-25-2012, 08:42 PM   #8
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I know embarrassingly little about art in RL, but I would think sculptures and statues would be a lot more durable in the context of Middle-earth technology.

How enduring are the canvases and other surfaces on which the great masterworks we know of rest upon? Aren't they now kept under controlled environmental conditions with that in mind?
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Old 03-26-2012, 07:56 AM   #9
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Even if oil painting on canvas would have been a bit anachronistic in a pre-Renaissance setting, that doesn't mean that visual flat images would have been out of place, as has been noted. Tolkien's comparison of Gondor to the Byzantine Empire makes me think immediately of mosaics. For that matter, Tolkien's comparison of the Númenor to ancient Egypt also makes me think of the rather famous Egyptian 2-dimensional art. Obviously, this doesn't imply an artistic connection, but it certainly removes any charges of anachronism.
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Old 03-26-2012, 09:10 AM   #10
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Even if oil painting on canvas would have been a bit anachronistic in a pre-Renaissance setting, that doesn't mean that visual flat images would have been out of place, as has been noted. Tolkien's comparison of Gondor to the Byzantine Empire makes me think immediately of mosaics. For that matter, Tolkien's comparison of the Númenor to ancient Egypt also makes me think of the rather famous Egyptian 2-dimensional art. Obviously, this doesn't imply an artistic connection, but it certainly removes any charges of anachronism.
Certainly. Mosaics make me think especially of Elves, Dwarves and all the "high" cultures. But even when it comes to painting, you don't really need oil and canvas for that, certainly - what about frescoes? That is absolutely normal, 100% medieval-European, and would fit nicely. Yet we don't hear much of that either.

I think, given the general concept of Middle-Earth as the place where beautiful things are in the beginning and then things get only older, ruined, destroyed and/or uglier (or not as pretty as they were in the beginning, anyway), painting does not really fit this scheme very well. Painting fades with time, but it is not meant to last very long in the first place. Statues, in the ideal way, would last millenia. Painting won't last very long. So painting, if I generalise it, could at most be only rather "low-rank", not very "reliable" form of art. Maybe made for the moment, but not to endure. That would explain why the narration or the characters do not pay it very much attention, if any.
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Old 03-26-2012, 01:27 PM   #11
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I think, given the general concept of Middle-Earth as the place where beautiful things are in the beginning and then things get only older, ruined, destroyed and/or uglier (or not as pretty as they were in the beginning, anyway), painting does not really fit this scheme very well. Painting fades with time, but it is not meant to last very long in the first place. Statues, in the ideal way, would last millenia. Painting won't last very long. So painting, if I generalise it, could at most be only rather "low-rank", not very "reliable" form of art. Maybe made for the moment, but not to endure. That would explain why the narration or the characters do not pay it very much attention, if any.
That is along the lines of my point, though you've put it more plainly.

When one thinks of Elves and Dwarves, are there instances of them even making complex statues? Their history, especially to the Elves, was something that to them was almost alive on its own anyway. They may have simply thought that such efforts as painting and sculpting were unnecessary; first as a means of remembrance, as their feel of the flowing of time was quite different from mortals, or even for mere joy of creation, as they seemed much more attuned to song as a way of expressing emotion.

We see the Dwarves making simple stone markers, such as the one that indicated where Durin first viewed the Mirrormere, but I can't recall anything more representative of actual historical figures.
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Old 03-26-2012, 03:32 PM   #12
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I don't think anyone mentioned woodcarving yet? (please forgive me if I'm mistaken) It's something both practical and a form of art; like pottery. I bet you hobbits had some ornate furniture, and if I remember correctly Elrond's cieling had some nice decorative wood, the way Frodo describes it when he wakes up in Rivendell.
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Old 07-11-2012, 12:25 PM   #13
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Silmaril A very interesting topic

You began a very interesting topic, Mithalwen. Certainly, we do have examples of jewellery, architecture, decorative art, heraldry, and a general pride in making practical objects lovely. But the idea that there is 'very little sculpture' in Middle-earth, apart from the examples you described, is quite wrong. Pippin, when he was about to meet Denethor in Minas Tirith, was very taken by the hall he had entered, which included a lot of sculpture:

It was lit by deep windows in the wide aisles at either side, beyond the rows of tall pillars that upheld the roof. Monoliths of black marble, they rose to great capitals carved in many strange figures of beasts and leaves; and far above in shadow the wide vaulting gleamed with dull gold, inset with flowing traceries of many colours. No hangings nor stored webs, nor any things of woven stuff or of wood, were to be seen in that long hall; but between the pillars stood a silent company of tall images graven in cold stone. (The Lord of the Rings, (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), pp. 737-8)

These images are explained as an 'avenue of kings long dead'.(Ibid.)

Inziladun, in a related question, you asked if elves and dwarves ever made complex statues. The answer is 'Yes' as far as the elves are concerned; because they appear to have a long and distinguised history of such work. One can go back to Valinor during the Elder Days to the great sculptress Nerdanel the Wise, whose work is described as follows:

She made images, some of the Valar in their forms visable, and many others of men and women of the Eldar, and these were so alike that their friends, if they knew not her art, would speak to them; but many things she wrought also of her own thought in shapes strong and strange but beautiful. (The History of Middle-earth: 10. Morgoth’s Ring, (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), p. 272.)

It makes me wish that they did exist in reality!

Galadriel55, you wondered if woodcarving had been mentioned yet. One of the earliest places we can start with that is the 'Narn' in Unfinished Tales, which talks of Túrin's friend ‘Sador the woodwright’, who at the time of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, was working on a ‘great chair’ for ‘the lord [Húrin] to sit on in his hall’. (Unfinished Tales, (London: Unwin paperbacks, 1982), pp. 64-5) Later, when discussing what to do with the chair with Túrin, he

fingered the carving on the chair and signed. ‘I wasted my time,’ he said,
‘though the hours seemed pleasant. But all such things are short-lived; and the joy in the making is their only true end, I guess.’
(UT, p. 72)

I particularly like this passage, due to his acknowledgement that his work is perhaps more ephemeral than that of others, and that perhaps it is best just to take pleasure in creating it, and not worry if it will survive the ages. Is he saying this because he is a Man, I wonder?

In the Third Age, we find not only that Frodo wakes up in bed in Rivendell, and finds the ceiling had ‘dark beams richly carved'; (LotR, p. 213) the Gondorians also appear to have a strong tradition of woodcarving. When Frodo and Sam parted from Faramir and his men, the two were given, ‘two stout staves of polished wood, shod with iron, and with carven heads through which ran plaited leathern thongs'. Faramir explained that they were ‘made of the fair tree lebethron, beloved of the woodwrights of Gondor, and a virtue has been set upon them of finding and returning'. (Ibid., p. 679)

Later, on the day of Aragorn’s crowning, the crown was brought out in ‘a great casket of black lebethron bound with silver'. (Ibid., p. 945)

I particularly liked the discussion about paintings, and why we don't see any. I agree with the suggestion that Elves would think of them as too ephemeral for their taste. As Inziladun correctly asked, 'How enduring are the canvases and other surfaces on which the great masterworks we know of rest upon? Aren't they now kept under controlled environmental conditions with that in mind?' If you're a being who lives as long as Arda, creating such a work would be a waste of time. For that reason, those who made jewellery were seen as the top artists by their fellow elves, Fëanor being the greatest of all, due to jewellery being the most durable of artworks.

This can be seen in real life, when an Anglo-Saxon ring, about 1,300 years old, was found in 2001:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/ukne...in-garden.html

I recall watching the television programme on which the ring was shown; and it looked as good as ever.

While I can understand Elves, and some Men taking that attitude, I wonder about Hobbits, due to their interest in family trees. Do people think that, due to the Shire being based on a village in the English Midlands c.1897, hobbits who could afford it had their portraits painted? I can well imagine Bag End, let alone Brandy Hall or Great Smials, with a lot of family portraits on the walls. What do people think?

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Old 07-29-2012, 11:57 AM   #14
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There has been no renaissance in middle earth. There were no newspapers, no fast way to print documents. Information was slow to spread and there was no public education. It's quite safe to say that most teenagers living today are far smarter than most men living in middle earth. Middle earth is also at constant war with orcs and the many wild beasts running around. One would think that the elves would have developed some way to paint beautiful paintings but I think the reason they don't is because....there is little fiction within the fiction so the speak.
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Old 07-29-2012, 12:54 PM   #15
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By smart I presume you mean intelligent? In which case I don't think it is fair. There is a difference between intelligence and knowledge. Modern teenagers may be educated and have lots of technology but most probably couldn't survive without them.
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Old 07-29-2012, 01:14 PM   #16
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No I mean knowledge, with no public education at all men and dwarves knew little of anything but how to survive in the wild and how to fight. Most probably weren't encouraged to become scholars. The elves live long and had vast fields of knowledge. But I don't think they had any need for fiction like we do today.

We use fiction to escape reality, the elves created statues and monuments in memory of people to honor them. Do one honor a falling warrior by painting a portrait of him? Actually in a lot of ways they live more in reality in the fictional world of middle earth than we do today in our modern world.
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Old 07-29-2012, 01:23 PM   #17
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By smart I presume you mean intelligent? In which case I don't think it is fair. There is a difference between intelligence and knowledge. Modern teenagers may be educated and have lots of technology but most probably couldn't survive without them.
Look at the "smartest people in the room" (at least as far as Men were concerned) in ME, the Númenóreans. Things didn't work out so well for them as a people.

There was a passing mention though in he Silmarillion of artworks in Númenor.

[QUOTE]Then suddenly fire burst from the Meneltarma, and there came a mighty wind and a tumult of the earth....and Númenor went down into the sea....with....all ....its riches, and its jewels and its webs and its things painted and carven....they vanished forever./QUOTE] Akallabêth

Like Mith said, it's not really fair to generalize our RL world as being so much the better for technology and such. I think a lot of people would prefer to live in ME, at least the 'Downs lot.

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Old 07-29-2012, 09:42 PM   #18
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If you put a man from ME into a com tech class he'd fail, but he'd live. If you were put into ME wilderness, I'm not so certain.

One type of knowledge does not make another worthless. One is not better than another. The ME man would most likely think you an idiot because you would not be able to do tasks that are simple and basic to him, while you think him an idiot because he can't do maths and etc. But both require knowledge. Don't scoff at the likes of Sam Gamgee and the Gaffer - they might know more about life, even if they know less about books.

But I can't really see how education - or lack of it - is relevant to making art. In those days you did not have to attend art school or anything like that to make it. I guess if you're a smith you won't carve statues, but you can still make art within your profession.
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Old 07-30-2012, 05:37 AM   #19
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Cry me a river, all I'm saying is that most lived in hunter/gatherer societies or on farming. There were no intellectual centers in middle earth. The elves were too much caught up in reality to bury themself in fiction...which art basically is.
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Old 07-30-2012, 02:46 PM   #20
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Originally Posted by Mumriken View Post
Cry me a river, all I'm saying is that most lived in hunter/gatherer societies or on farming. There were no intellectual centers in middle earth. The elves were too much caught up in reality to bury themself in fiction...which art basically is.
Once again, why do you need an intellectual centre to make art?

And why does art have to be fiction?
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Old 07-30-2012, 03:02 PM   #21
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There is a difference between these two, i will say no more:
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Old 08-04-2012, 07:03 PM   #22
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There does appear to be a lack of descriptions of paintings in Middle Earth, but that doesn't really mean that there weren't any.

There aren't many places that you'd expect them to be described. Edoras had its tapestries - far more appropriate for Rohan's culture than oil paintings, frescoes or icons to my mind. I'd certainly expect to see this sort of art in Gondor, but we are only really shown the description of the Avenue of Kings as Faramir Jones posted above. Now this fair but cold hall of stone and sculpture fits Minas Tirith so very well, especially Denethor's character. It's maybe a reminder of classical architecture as an instrument of power - big and impressive to overawe visitors, impersonal too, no natural colours etc.

This does rather hint at Greece and Rome, but as we know today classical sculpture etc was usually brighly painted, even to the extent of appearing gaudy to us.

So maybe painted art was widespread in Minas Tirith but we just didn't get to see any. To be fair there was a war on, so perhaps Pippin just didn't have the time to tour the gallery.

Apart from what's mentioned above, the only hint of paintings I can think of aren't mentioned in the books, but are just possibly shown in one of Tolkien's own drawings. Where? Well, the front hall of Bag End of course.



Now these might be paintings or possibly mirrors. The one on the left might be reflecting the view out of the front door, or it might be a painting of that view. The perspective seems a bit off for it to be a mirror, and a curved mirror should give a distorted image but JRRT wasn't really a professional artist so could well have got it a bit wrong. The other picture/mirror shows just a swirl. No way of guessing what this is. But as said above I could certainly see the Gentle-hobbitry hanging paintings of notable ancestors or nice landscapes.
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Old 08-05-2012, 07:53 AM   #23
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Some more painting snippets I've thought of.

'At the sign of the Prancing Pony'

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Above the arch there was a lamp, and beneath it swung a large signboard: a fat white pony reared up on its hind legs. Over the door was painted in white letters: THE PRANCING PONY by BARLIMAN BUTTERBUR.
So Bree at least has painted pub signs, and I strongly suspect that The Green Dragon and other Shire pubs had similar.

As Mith says heraldic art is often mentioned, eg the devices of the Noldorian princes in the First Age. But there's also the use of more representational devices, like the white horses painted on the shields of the Rohirrim. Another area is that of flags and banners. We are told that Aragorn's standard was embroidered by Arwen, but as far as I'm aware embroidered battle flags are quite rare in our reality, more often they were painted. So Rohan's horse, Dol Amroth's swan and Harad's serpent may well have been painted.
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Old 08-20-2012, 05:40 PM   #24
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Aha! another mention of Bag End art

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There was plenty of everything left for Frodo. And, of course, all the chief treasures, as well as the books, pictures, and more than enough furniture, were left in his possession
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Old 08-22-2012, 07:26 AM   #25
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Thumbs up Nice references, Rumil!

Nice references, Rumil! I was possibly thinking of one of them when wondering if some hobbits had their portraits painted.
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Old 09-08-2012, 10:07 AM   #26
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Don't forget the Great Hall at Menegroth, its pillars carved to resemble the beeches of Orome with birds and beasts peering down from the branches.
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