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Obituaries Australia

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Fairfax, James Oswald (1933–2017)

by Valerie Lawson

James Fairfax, the former chairman of publisher John Fairfax Ltd, died on Wednesday at his home at Retford Park in Bowral. He was 83.

Last year Mr Fairfax bequeathed the Retford Park homestead, estimated to be worth $18 million, to the National Trust. The Trust's chief executive Brian Scarsbrick describes the estate as "a real jewel in the crown" of the organisation's heritage properties.

The property is being preserved in perpetuity for the community, with funds for its upkeep coming from the neighbouring residential property developed when he subdivided part of the 120-hectare Retford Park estate.

Known for his philanthropy, he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 2010 for "eminent service to the community through support and philanthropy for the visual arts, conservation organisations and building programs for medical research and educational facilities".

 The eldest son of newspaper proprietor Sir Warwick Oswald Fairfax, Mr Fairfax was a director on the Fairfax board from 1957 until 1987, serving as chairman from 1977 to 1987 when his half-brother "young Warwick" Fairfax launched a takeover of the company.

He travelled widely, collecting numerous artworks and retained a collection of classical European art, reputedly one of the finest in Australia.

He donated old masters worth more than $30 million to the Art Gallery of NSW, among them works by Tiepolo, Rubens, Ingres, Canaletto, Lorrain and Watteau, and was a life governor of the both the gallery and the National Gallery of Australia (NGA).

"James has made an immense contribution to Australian society," said Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood. "His generous spirit and philanthropy has created a legacy that will continue to enrich the lives of Australians for many generations to come. Our thoughts are with his family and friends."

NGA director Gerard Vaughan said Mr Fairfax would be remembered as "one of Australia's greatest patrons of the arts".

'[He was] a collector and connoisseur of formidable skill and talent ... [and] an exceptionally generous donor to many art museums, whose collections he enriched," he said.

In recent years Mr Fairfax was unable to travel having suffered a series of heart attacks. 

He is survived by his half-brothers, Warwick and Charles Fairfax, his half-sisters, Annalise Thomas and Anna Cleary, and his stepmother, Lady Mary Fairfax.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 January 2017

Additional Resources

Citation details

Valerie Lawson, 'Fairfax, James Oswald (1933–2017)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 30 September 2020.

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