Newspaper magnate, collector, philanthropist, and friend: just some of the many words used to describe one of Australia’s most prominent and respected collectors of the last century. Best known for producing stalwart Australian publications such as “The Sydney Morning Herald” and “The Australian Financial Review,” James Fairfax was a key part of the Fairfax media dynasty during his lifetime. As the former chairman and director of John Fairfax Limited (now Fairfax Media), he held a lifelong passion for travel that influenced the trajectory of his collection, which contained a diverse mix of European art (including notable works by Titian, Rubens, and Rembrandt), European furniture, Chinese textiles and jades, and Australian contemporary art.
Though he passed away in January of 2017, Fairfax’s methodology continues to inspire fellow collectors and museum audiences alike. But what made the Fairfax approach to collecting so unique and infectious? As over 500 objects and works of art from his personal collection head to auction this month, our editors sat down with specialist Robert Williams of Leonard Joel to better understand the man and method behind a very public family name – and a museum-worthy collection.
A Collector on the Rise
James Fairfax began collecting in his early 30s, first acquiring Australian artists such as Sidney Nolan and Donald Friend, and later developing an eye for European Old Master paintings in the 1960s. Over time, Williams says that Fairfax amassed a truly world-class assemblage of works. “An important consideration for him was that the pieces he collected be of such a quality that they could be loaned to museums for the public to enjoy. He loaned several pieces to The Queensland Art Gallery and The Art Gallery of New South Wales.”
Described by many as a meticulous collector, Fairfax made sure to do his homework in advance. “He worked with and consulted leading experts in their field before he would purchase many of the items, including Chinese, Japanese and European works of art,” Williams adds. Fairfax befriended many artists, dealers, and curators over the years, which also helped inform his collecting decisions.
As a man of business whose profession took him to many continents around the world, Fairfax was well-traveled. These excursions inspired his affinity for and diversity in collecting. Williams explains, “Mr. Fairfax traveled extensively between his residences in the U.K. and Australia, and would often stop for extended periods in Asia where he would visit galleries, museums, and antique dealers.” It was on one such visit that Fairfax acquired one of the jewels of his collection, a Chinese Imperial Dragon Robe (Longpao Jifu), from the Daoguang Period, dating to about 1820.
“He would take detailed notes of the pieces that appealed to him, and then seek the advice of gallerists and antique dealers in London to help him source similar examples for his collection,” Williams adds. Among Fairfax’s favored galleries were Mallett & Son, Linda Wrigglesworth, Irving Galleries, and James McWhirter Antiques. “For him, collecting beautiful objects was not purely about the aesthetic; he wanted to work with and learn from each of his pieces. Most of all, provenance inspired all of his acquisitions.”
For many collectors, there is a small group of objects – or just one object in particular – that holds personal significance and perhaps more sentimental value than the rest. For Fairfax, it was not the prized Titian in his arsenal of coveted treasures, but rather a small, unassuming object that he treasured above all: a tobacco jar featuring a painted caricature reading “The Sydney Morning Herald.” Williams explains that the jar was made by German company Conta & Boehme in the late 19th century, and according to Fairfax family legend, the caricature was modelled on James’ grandfather and founder of Fairfax media, John Fairfax.
Williams notes that Conta & Boehme made many of the jars for each of the major newspapers around the world by simply changing the name of the newspaper, but there is no doubting the striking resemblance the figure bears to Fairfax.
A Home Suitable for the Collection
So where does a world-renowned collector house artworks of such magnitude? Originally built in 1887 and purchased by Fairfax in 1964, the historic Retford Park Estate in Australia’s picturesque Southern Highlands is where Fairfax spent most of his time. Featuring Italianate architecture and sprawling English-style gardens (designed by revered British landscape architect John Codrington), the “regal grandeur” of Retford Park, where Fairfax’s spirit of giving was eternally present, served as a perfect complement to his expansive collection.
“There was a gallery on the grounds of Retford Park where James Fairfax would hang many of his works of contemporary art,” Williams explains. “He often arranged for his works of art – and indeed some of the decorative works of art and artifacts – to rotate his properties around the world. Occasionally, too, he would loan works to museums, therefore making them accessible to the public, and reflecting his commitment to supporting living artists and to sharing his collection.”
In keeping with Fairfax’s immense generosity, the estate was gifted to the National Trust of Australia on April 19, 2016, and is expected to open to the public in 2018. “It is absolutely magnificent, from the home, the gardens, the artworks… there is nothing quite like it in Australia and soon it will be open to the public to share,” National Trust director of properties Richard Slink said in a July 2017 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald.
A Look Inside the Fairfax Collection
With Leonard Joel Specialist Robert Williams
“One of the most prominent international examples in the collection is a superbly carved Chinese white Jade Mythical Horse, from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In Chinese art, this creature with dragon-like scales is known as a sea horse, (haima) and is often depicted resting upon scrolling waves, with head turned, facing the books bound onto his back. There is no doubt of the appeal this fine piece would have held for James Fairfax, who too shared a love of the written word.”
“This rare Manchu nine dragon robe is embroidered with silk and couched gold-wrapped thread on a rich satin ground of imperial yellow,” Williams explains. “The auspicious design, symbolizing the Confucian ideal of eight fields protected by a ninth encircling it, is detailed by the eight dragons on the outer garment, with an unseen ninth dragon concealed in the inner panel of the robe.” This magnificent robe would have been worn by the Empress for official duties, important sacred ceremonies, or when giving an audience in her chambers.
“Some of the most prominent pieces from the collection, which reflect Mr. Fairfax as a well-traveled gentleman with a love of history, are an exceptional George III mahogany pedestal partners desk, circa 1765; an English 19th century metamorphic flame mahogany gentleman’s dressing cabinet; an English George IV brass bound mahogany lap desk artists’ box, circa 1825; and James Jacques Joseph Tissot’s Promenade dans la Neige, 1880.
“Another fine piece of European furniture that reflects Fairfax’s interest in items of historical importance is a desk that once belonged to the English photographer, writer and painter, Sir Cecil Beaton CBE.”
“Mr Fairfax also loved Japanese art, artifacts, and applied arts. His beloved collection of Japanese screens are now housed in The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and in various other museum collections.”
Works from the James Fairfax Collection will be offered at Leonard Joel on August 31 and September 1, 2017, with online bidding available on invaluable.com. Proceeds from the sale are estimated to realize over $1,000,000, and will partly benefit a foundation intended to support various charities, including The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, The Children’s Medical Research Foundation and WWF. To explore the full catalog or place a bid, click here.