University of Otago researcher Dr Paul Tankard has sparked
international media attention after tracking down a series of
lost illustrations for The Lord of the Rings, which
were highly praised by author J.R.R. Tolkien but never
The illustrations, by a previously little-known English
artist, Mary Fairburn, now aged 78, widowed and living in
Victoria, Australia, and Dr Tankard's research have just been
highlighted by a front-page story in The Times Literary
Dr Tankard, an Australian-born senior lecturer in the Otago
English department, is making something of a habit of
literary detective work.
Early last year he hit the headlines in Britain by tracking
down a lost transcript of a television interview with
celebrated British writer C.S. Lewis, an Oxford University
don, novelist and literary critic.
Oxford University researcher and author J.R.R. Tolkien
thought illustrations did "little good" to stories of the
fantasy or fairy-tale kind - but when it came to The Lord
of the Rings, the "ill-fated work of Mary Fairburn made
him reconsider", Dr Tankard wrote in the supplement.
In May 1968, Tolkien was sent some samples of illustrations
for The Lord of the Rings by Miss Fairburn, a
London-born artist and art teacher, writing from Winchester.
At that stage, Tolkien, a former Oxford University professor,
was aged 76 and living in retirement in Oxford. He initially
wrote back to her saying her works were "splendid" and better
than any other illustrations previously sent to him.
She had sent at least three pictures, including a pen-and-ink
illustration of Gandalf on the tower of Orthanc, and "a
little sketch of Gollum".
After seeing her "specimens" he was beginning to "think that
an illustrated edition might be a good thing" and would be
"very pleased indeed" to see her other pictures when they
But a few weeks later, Tolkien's "life and affairs were
thrown into chaos", Dr Tankard said.
On June 17, he badly injured his leg at home and was
hospitalised. There was further disruption when he and his
wife shifted to a house near Bournemouth.
Miss Fairburn later explained to Tolkien she had been
"sleeping on the floor of a condemned basement", and faced
significant hardship and debts.
But her hopes of being able to illustrate The Lord of the
Rings were to be dashed.
Tolkien was sympathetic and sent her 50 as a gift.
She later emigrated to Australia, where she has lived for
more than 40 years, and the academic world knew nothing about
Tolkien's praise for her or about the pictures she had
All that changed after Dr Tankard travelled to Castlemaine,
about 120km northwest of Melbourne, in late 2010 to visit
Told an artist living there had apparently had links with
Tolkien, Dr Tankard went to see her, and was shown letters
from Tolkien. He knew he was "on to something".
The Tolkien Estate, which holds the copyright for all
Tolkien's letters, allowed him to use the letters, and also
gave him access to letters Miss Fairburn had sent Tolkien.
Despite receiving high praise from Tolkien, she had had
difficulties having her work published or displayed in
"She's never had any fellowships or arts council grants or
anything like that.
"I'm sure it's rankled with her over the years.
"In many ways I'm excited for Miss Fairburn.
"She's had a life of not much recognition for an awful lot of