The Last Portraits

Patrick Steel was just 21 when he photographed James Hunt in 1991, two years before the star’s death. He recently found the images in his attic

To this day I have only ever posted one letter to somebody famous, and that letter was sent to James Hunt. I honestly didn’t think that I would hear back, but to my surprise James telephoned a couple of days later accepting my proposal of a one-to-one fine-art portrait session. We set a date for the following week.

I could not believe my luck.

Originally, we had arranged to carry out the shoot at his imposing house on Bathgate Road, Wimbledon. However, he telephoned me at the last minute and changed the location to another secluded property, close by on Wimbledon Common.

It was a perfect summer evening on July 2, 1991 when I arrived at The Coach House on Windmill Road. At exactly 7pm, I knocked on the front door and James answered abruptly. He was wearing a blue singlet top with pale blue denim shorts and, naturally, he was barefoot. I wondered how on earth I was going to get him to change into something a little smarter.

I explained to James that in order to set up my lighting and background stands, quite a lot of the furniture would need to be moved. He bent over backwards to help; he was hyperactive, full of energy, darting around the house the whole time I was there, while his partner seemed very shy. I only caught a fleeting glimpse of her blonde hair when she popped her head into the room to see how we’d transformed the space.

A while later the stage was set, and so I called: “James, I’m ready!” Within seconds he burst into the room. “Right, where do you want me?” he asked, quickly followed by: “Is this alright?” as he tugged on his top.

“Well,” I said in a respectful way. “You wouldn’t happen to have anything black would you, like a crew neck?” He turned around and marched back toward the kitchen. A short while later he bounced back into the room sporting a black crew-neck sweater, and our session began.

It was actually quite intense for both of us at first, so as soon as I’d captured the powerful portraits that I’d set out to achieve, I relaxed the mood and we shared a few laughs.

I had been there for over an hour, but the actual photoshoot lasted no longer than ten minutes, three rolls of medium-format film, one roll of colour and two black and white. Only 30 frames were captured in all.

I don’t think the timing could have been any better. Both James’s hair and stubble were at the perfect length, and I’ve since learned that he was off cigarettes and alcohol at the time and very much into his fitness.

Once my car was packed, we shook hands and I thanked him very much. Just as I opened the car door he cupped his right hand around his mouth and called out: “Jolly good luck with your photography!”

It was a lovely thing for him to say, but little did I know that they’d be the last words he’d ever say to me.