The Magic of Middle-earth – bringing the imaginary to life

Our exhibition, The Magic of Middle-earth, is now in its final few days and we’d strongly encourage you to catch it before it closes on 17 October. In curator and collector Matt Fox’s treasure trove of Tolkien-related objects you'll notice a number of things made by Weta Workshop.

So who are Weta Workshop? Based in Wellington, New Zealand, they are the makers who supported Peter Jackson in helping bring the props of Tolkien’s imagination to life. Their own website statement claims ‘we design cool stuff’ and that’s exactly what they do! We thought we’d celebrate their creativity by sharing just a few of their items in the exhibition.

Thorin’s Map – prop replica, Weta Workshop NZ, 2012

All objects seen on-screen in Peter Jackson’s movies had to be newly imagined, save for one - Tolkien’s own hand-drawn illustration of the dwarf Thorin’s map. Published within the first edition of The Hobbit, it served as the basis for the movie prop, recreated by Weta Workshop.

The Key to Erebor – prop replica, Weta Workshop NZ, 2012

The dwarven architecture and design work for the Peter Jackson movies was influenced by art deco and sharp geometry. Weta Workshop were able to translate these ideas into this famous prop. The angular key to Erebor suggests a race that rely on engineering and mechanical skill, rather than magic.

Pipe of Bilbo Baggins – prop replica, Weta Workshop NZ, 2015

Some of the most memorable images of Bilbo Baggins in the Jackson movies were his moments of quiet contemplation with his pipe. In Tolkien’s books, Hobbits were credited with inventing the habit of smoking and so Weta Workshop created specially styled Hobbit pipes. Tolkien himself confessed, “I do smoke and enjoy it, and as a matter of fact it’s so tied to writing that I can’t write without it.” Tolkien devoted a whole page in The Lord of the Rings prologue to ‘Concerning Pipe-weed’.

The Balrog, Flame of Udan, Weta Workshop, NZ, 2018

Visualised by Weta artist Ben Wootten as a fire demon, this Balrog bust illuminates to crackle with flame. Gandalf names the Balrog “Flame of Udun”, relating to the First Age (The Silmarillion) and Morgoth’s foul fortress of Udun.

With excellent design, a fictional world will live on in an audiences’ memory long after leaving the cinema. Weta Workshop excelled at creating and designing some of the most extraordinary landscapes of Middle-earth. Today they continue a 30 year tradition of working with film-makers and the creative industries to allow us to immerse and escape to other-worldly universes, all from the comfort of our sofa. Check out their website for more information.

The Magic of Middle-earth runs until 17 October 2021 at the Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery, Basingstoke.

This article was written by:

Tara McKinney Marinus

Visual Arts Exhibitions Manager, Culture Hubs
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