The rare images of J.R.R. Tolkien which caused a sensation at auction

Pamela Chandler's portraits of the great J.R.R. Tolkien went under the hammer recently, almost doubling the estimate set by the auctioneers.

In 1961, Pamela Chandler was sent to photograph the notoriously camera-shy J. R. R. Tolkien. Chandler was a Society photographer, the daughter of a famous conjurer and ventriloquist, and the first woman to photograph a Prime Minister when she was commissioned to take a portrait of Harold Macmillan. A couple of dozen of her images are part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, including the 1960 Macmillan image.

But it was the 1961 job, some six years after the final volume of the Lord of the Rings triology was published, whose ripples were felt at an auction last month. Chandler became fast friends with ‘Tollers’ and his wifeTolkiens, writing in her journal that the Tolkiens were the ‘most adorable people you could care to meet and I can never think of one without the other’.

JRR Tolkien, photographed by Pamela Chandler. ©Pamela Chandler via Reeman Dansie

The resulting images provide a rare glimpse of the writer in his study, looking at books and sitting beside his hand-drawn map of Middle Earth. Five years later, Tolkien and Edith invited Chandler back to Oxfordshire to take more photographs of them in their garden.

These extraordinary images, as well as six letters, went under the hammer with Reeman Dansie of Colchester, Essex, in December and caused something of a sensation. There were 100 lots from Chandler’s archive including quite a few famous sitters, but those that drew the most international interest were a collection of original negatives from the Tolkien shoots, which achieved £18,000, and Tolkien’s letters; in one, he grumbles about a newspaper article’s ‘impertinent intrusion into my privacy’.

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‘We were delighted with the level of interest which this collection generated,’ said Daniel Wright, Reeman Dansie’s associate director. ‘Tolkien’s appeal is as broad as ever, but his retiring and publicly evasive personality meant that he was rarely photographed. Chandler’s portraits offer a charming glimpse of this private man.’

JRR Tolkien, photographed by Pamela Chandler. ©Pamela Chandler via Reeman Dansie

The auction reached a total of about £50,000, almost doubling its estimate. Some lots include copyrights and it is the hope of Chandler’s family that her work will now reach a wider audience.

See more of the auction lots at Reeman Dansie’s website and more of Pamela Chandler’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery website.