Work begins to open James Fairfax’s stunning Retford Park to the public

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If ever there was a true Gentleman’s Estate, it would have to be the magnificent, sprawling home of the late James Fairfax, who departed this mortal coil in January but left one of the most extraordinary gifts to the people of Australia one could imagine: Bowral’s gob-smackingly beautiful Retford Park.

In August the National Trust will finally take control of the meticulously maintained estate, complete with its extraordinary gardens and vestiges from a lifetime of collecting some of the finest artworks and objet d’art in the world.

The National Trust is currently in the process of lodging a development application with the local Wingecarribee Shire Council with hopes the estate could be opened to the public within a year.

Sitting pride of place in the home will be a stunning painting of Retford Park’s garden by the artist Colin Lancely, commissioned by Fairfax and exhibited in the 1985 Biennale. It is considered by some to be a true modern Australian masterpiece.

“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 told PS.

It will be a fitting legacy for Fairfax, a man who eschewed many of the trappings that came with being a scion of one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the country.

Oxford-educated, he spent 32 years with Fairfax (publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald), including a decade as its chairman between 1977 and 1987.

Upon his death in January, aged 83, those who had worked with him recalled his selfless attitude when it came to the pursuit of free press.

Mike Carlton recalled the Liberals in NSW once threatened to expose Fairfax as gay, to prevent a story they didn’t like. “He told his editors to publish anyway,” Carlton recalled.

He also took on powerful enemies, not in the least rival media giant Kerry Packer over the so-called Goanna allegations.

But away from the cut and thrust of running a media dynasty, Fairfax was a man of refined taste who eschewed the limelight, preferring to spend his time with artists and raconteurs, including the likes of retailing scion Charles Lloyd Jones and artists Sidney Nolan and Donald Friend.

But before the doors of Retford Park are flung open to the great unwashed, a large collection of Fairfax’s most prized pieces are going on sale.

On August 30 a collection, worth at least $6 million, of artworks by the likes of Arthur Streeton and Eugene von Guerard is be auctioned by Deutscher and Hacket at the Cell Block Theatre in Darlinghurst.

It will be followed by an auction of precious pieces, ranging from stunning lacquered Japanese stools to a silver and gold cigarette box presented by Queen Elizabeth II. The auction will take place at Leonard Joel on August 21 and September 1 in Queen Street, Woollahra.

Conservatively estimated to realise more than $7 million, the proceeds from both the auctions will go to the The James Fairfax Foundation, which will provide income to help support charities including the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, the Children’s Medical Research Foundation and WWF.

And all this follows Fairfax’s gifts of Old Masters to the Art Gallery of New South Wales over many years that established the James Fairfax Galleries, named in his honour.

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