Vale James Fairfax – Unassuming Art of Giving Beyond Self

James Fairfax 2

James Fairfax 2 There are not many people around today who would remember how fierce passionate amateurs in both the world of sport and music were for giving of their services to the greater good. Chariots of Fire (1981) was a movie that presented that premise well, its stirring music firing up the populace with the knowledge that giving back to society is just like commercialism, integral to its health and well being at large.

One man who understood not only this concept of giving but also acted upon it was philanthropist James Fairfax AO (1933 – 2017) an unassuming gentleman and commercial media contributor, who helped to fashion the art of giving beyond self.

Artist : François Boucher (France, b.1703, d.1770)  Title :  Date : mid 1740s Medium Description: oil on canvas Dimensions :  Credit Line : Gift of James Fairfax 1992

François Boucher (France, b.1703, d.1770) 1740s, Portrait présume de Madame Boucher, oil on canvas, Gift of James Fairfax 1992, courtesy Art Gallery of NSW

Made an officer in the Order of Australia in 1993 and a Companion of the Order in 2010 for his ever expanding support for the arts as well as conservation, medical research and education, James Fairfax made a significant contribution to Australian society.

He departed this life eleven days into the New Year, leaving behind a legacy of generosity and physical fine art to mark his journey through life, in particular the James Fairfax wing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a showcase for the European works he gifted to it.

Philanthropy is an idea born of noble invention, and prior to World War II amateurs were always quite divided in their views, especially when the discussion of money entered the equation.

Sydney Art Gallery

Auguste Rodin, France (1840 – 1917), Detail Second Maquette for the Burghers of Calais, modelled 1885, cast 1972. Art Gallery of NSW

However in the three decades following WWII they found it difficult to hang onto their values and principles in the wake of expanding commercialism and for those who did not have income from another source, it was more than hard.

Australia at that time had only a small history of philanthropy, which existed in Melbourne more than any other capital city.

This was in part due to second and third generational wealth produced during the gold rush.

James Fairfax would have encountered the attitudes around giving when he boarded at Geelong Grammar in Melbourne.

Training for what would be a career over three decades in the family business of media, he also travelled widely and worked abroad expanding his own knowledge and experience, especially in England at Oxford, where he gained his Master of Arts degree.

His family life as a child had been far from ideal, shunted from pillar to post as a consequence of his father’s many changes of circumstance, which in many ways would have been likely to have also contributed to him gaining the ability to embrace change well.

James FairfaxRenowned for being a steadfast friend; a good listener, a necessary attribute for a great philanthropist, whose donations to individuals and causes including libraries, hospitals, universities and the World Wide Fund for Nature, were all gratefully received, James Fairfax was a life governor of both the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Australia. Characteristically, private with no thought of acclamation, James Fairax was very much admired for his modesty and his ability to be discreet,  ensuring that many benefited from his generous spirit and art of giving, emboldened by his own personal great wealth.

I would venture to say the idea of those who have a great deal more than others in society being able to give beyond self and back to society, would never have been able to continue to evolve as successfully as it has in Australia without the risk taking adventurous spirit of many entrepreneurs from the 70’s to the 90’s and fine examples of giving inspired by people like James Fairfax.

Edmond Capon & Bronzino

Former director Art Gallery of NSW Edmund Capon with the Bronzino donated by James Fairfax

Covering the period 15th – 19th century, Tiepolo, Rubens, Boucher, Fragonard, Ingres, Canaletto and Watteau are only some among the names of the artists whose works James Fairfax purchased and donated to galleries around Australia, which was all about him wanting to enrich the lives of all those who viewed them.

Grants, sponsorship, patronage and benefaction now established widely during that period have helped us to grow into a new future that will enrich future generations.


Cosimo 1 de’Medici in armour, circa 1545, Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), oil on poplar, Art Gallery of NSW

My only indirect contact with this most generous of men happened in 1996 because of his love of great art. He allowed pupils of the design history and decorative arts course I was teaching at the time, to encounter first hand a wonderful Renaissance portrait he had purchased to donate to the Art Gallery of NSW.

Viewed in a Sydney antiques showroom after hours, this was a very special experience for them all, providing them with an opportunity to examine the techniques employed to produce it, and to learn more about the subject while viewing it up close and personally.

The portrait was of that great patron of the arts in Renaissance times Cosimo 1 de’Medici (1519-1574) depicted wearing armour, which has been attributed to Agnolo Bronzino, a leading painter of mid sixteenth century Florence. His refined and stylish works ensured he was much in demand and this unsigned work has a provenance that traces it back to the collection of Bishop Paulo Giovio in 1551 in Italy.

How do we educate responsible global citizens who will champion democracy and human development? How do we impart the skills necessary for them to collaborate across the world of their differences and borders to assist in solutions for pressing global challenges, well only by honouring the example of great role models like James Fairfax.

Developing abilities and skills to value add to both local corporate and community life, as well as contribute towards the global greater good is all about attitudes, especially towards change and how to deal with it on a daily basis. Most people fear change…yet it is one thing that is sure, constant and inevitable.

Retford ParkJames Fairfax enjoyed a productive life, one he always wanted to share. He made a difference to many lives.

In 2016 Mr Fairfax gifted to the National Trust the mansion on the 120-hectare property Retford Park at Bowral where he died, which had been built in 1887.  A gift worth more than $20 million, its maintenance is supported by income from funds left for its upkeep.

Vale James Fairfax, yours was a remarkable personal achievement and an outstanding contribution. Rest in peace.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017

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