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 published.

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 Supplement.

Dr Tankard is an Australian-born senior lecturer in the Otago English department.

In May 1968, Tolkien was sent some samples of illustrations for The Lord of the Rings by Miss Fairburn, 35-year-old 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".

But a few weeks later, Tolkien's "life and affairs were thrown into chaos" when he was hospitalised, Dr Tankard said.

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.

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 produced.

All that quickly started to change after Dr Tankard travelled to Castlemaine, a small city in Victoria, Australia, about 120km north of Melbourne, in late 2010 to visit family members.

Told an artist living there had apparently had links with Tolkien, Dr Tankard went to see her, and was shown letters from Tolkien, and knew he was "on to something".