Vale James Fairfax

With James Fairfax’s passing yesterday, Australia has lost one of its greatest arts patrons and philanthropists, and the National Gallery of Australia has lost one of its founders. Coming from Sydney’s well-known Fairfax family, distinguished for their proprietorship of many of the nation’s leading newspapers, James played many roles, including working for the family firm. His interesting and affectionate autobiographical memoir of 1991 My regards to Broadway is well worth reading, for the light it throws not only on his own life but on Australian society generally. After attending Geelong Grammar in Victoria, James took a degree at Balliol College at Oxford, and later returned to Australia where in due course he took over the family firm from his father Sir Warwick.

James became a great patron of the arts, being a major donor to many museums and galleries, but in particular to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and to the National Gallery of Australia. He was connected to the Australian art world throughout his life, counting many well-known artists and their dealers amongst his friends. His family’s connections with Australia’s art world were longstanding and his grandfather also enjoyed a reputation in Sydney as an art collector at the end of the 19th century.

Charles Conder The Yarra, Heidelberg [The Yarra, Heidelberg: boys bathing] 1890, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of James Fairfax AO 1992

When the plans for a new national gallery for Australia came into focus in the 1960s, the government appointed James to the first Interim Council (1968-74), and subsequently he became a member of the permanent Council (1976-84). That is to say, he was closely associated with all the decision-making about what a new national gallery could and should be and on the nature of its collections. He was closely involved with the building of the NGA, and the NGA’s much used theatre bears his name. James was a serious collector and connoisseur, and effortlessly selected works of the highest quality for his collection. James’ personal interest in Australian art ranged from the colonial period to the art of his own contemporaries.

Philanthropy came naturally to him, and the 1990s and early 2000s represented the years of his most significant gifts to Australian public art galleries. What particularly distinguished James as a collector was the interest he developed from the early 1990s in European Old Masters, unusual in the annals of Australian collecting. He formed a collection of remarkable quality and integrity, purchasing major works from dealers in London, Paris and New York. Over a number of years he gave a substantial group of European masters to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the ten years from 1991 to 2000 he brought twelve paintings and six drawings, ranging from Jacob van Ruisdael to Claude Lorrain to Canaletto. He also gifted works to the Art Gallery of South Australia and to the National Gallery of Victoria, ranging from Jacob Jordaen’s Mercury and Argus to rare etchings by Rembrandt, to fill gaps in the NGV’s already extensive holding of Rembrandt prints. He retained for himself many of his favourite works and some of these have found their way onto the market in recent years with masterpieces such as Boilly’s Entrance to the Jardin Turc eventually finding its way to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Australian public collections have been enriched by his generosity.

Eugene Von Guerard Dandenong Ranges from 'Beleura' 1870, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. From the James Fairfax collection, gift of Bridgestar Pty Ltd 1995

Photo: Rex Dupain

The 1990s likewise saw a group of important Australian works gifted to the National Gallery in Canberra, ranging from earlier colonial works by Conrad Martens, Eugene von Guérard and Louis Buvelot, to Charles Conder’s highly important The Yarra, Heidelberg [boys bathing] 1890 and Frederick McCubbin’s early Sunset glow [The Yarra, Studley Park] 1884.

Many contemporary or near contemporary works produced by artists of his own generation also were gifted to the national collection, including Fred Williams’ Water pond in a landscape 1 1966, John Olsen’s We are all but toys of the mind 1965, and Leonard French’s In the beginning 1960. It is worth noting that Leonard French predeceased James by only a few days. One of the most iconic Australian works, which in many ways summed up the society to which he belonged, was George Lambert’s beautiful The squatter’s daughter 1923-24, for the purchase of which he provided the funding with Philip Bacon.

George Lambert The squatter's daughter 1923-24, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased with the generous assistance of James Fairfax AO and Philip Bacon AM and the people of Australia in 1991

Given that the NGA had decided at the beginning that it would own a small but choice collection of European Old Masters as an introduction to its later holdings, he was one of the major funders of the superb Cologne School early 16th century Triptych Virgin and Child with Saints, and to this can be added an oil sketch by Rubens.

Also in the 1990s, James supported his old university (he had purchased a fine mill house in Dorset, where he created a beautiful garden, and spent part of each year there), and was generous to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and made funds available to Oxford’s fundraising campaign to support scholarships for Australians.

His interests were many and varied, and his manner quiet and unassuming. He was a collector and connoisseur who made a difference. He will be greatly missed by us all.

Gerard Vaughan, NGA Director