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retford park, bowral nsw: Benevolence before the grave

By the time the National Trust had received the single richest gift in its history, Retford Park at Bowral, its benefactor had already made arrangements for its future upkeep – during his lifetime.

Photos: David Hill

WHEN newspaper scion, art collector and philanthropist James Oswald Fairfax AC died on January 11, 2017 aged 83, his magnificent Southern Highlands country estate passed into the national treasure trove.

But the true generosity of the bequest was largely in Fairfax’s preparations and provisions – before his passing – for the future maintenance of the Italianate-style mansion.

Fairfax gifted Retford Park to the National Trust of Australia (NSW) on 19 April, 2016. It was handed over in August 2017, opened to the public for the first time that October.

Rather than lumber the nation with a well-intentioned yet costly millstone, in 2012 Fairfax began the process of rezoning 90ha of land surrounding the estate for the building of 170 new homes.

Funds from the sale of those lots were gifted to the National Trust Heritage Foundation to help fund the future upkeep of his sumptuous one-time abode.

Millions of dollars were also added during and after his lifetime to the long-term kitty from the sale of pieces from his amazing art collection beyond the gifts to major public galleries around the nation of priceless works by the European old masters, including a painting by Giovanni Canaletto, Giovani Francesco Romanelli's The Three Marys of the Sepulchre and Titian's Portrait of a Nobleman.

Retford Park property manager from 2017 to January 2020, Scott Pollock, says Fairfax’s foresight and consideration, his remarkable philanthropy and charitable benevolence were invaluable in ensuring the long-term sustainability of the property.

``This man still opens doors even though he’s left.

``It’s fantastic to be in a situation where all I have to do is make a phone call, and it’s because of what he’s done they go: `Yeah, sure, we’ll do it’.’’

Worth $18 million at the time of his death, Retford Park included only the country house on 4ha of land when Fairfax bought it in 1964 for £15,000 (just over $400,000 in modern value) and gradually increased the holding to 120ha.

Today, Fairfax’s wish to make Retford Park accessible to all has become a reality through regular open days and community events of varying prices and interests including children’s activities, classical music performances, exclusive dinners and art exhibitions.

``Rather than aiming for a certain demographic, we’re more after a certain sort of event, which is intimate and that inspires,’’ Pollock says.

``We want people to sit down and enjoy it and really feel part of it in an intimate way. That’s why we’ve pulled away the ropes and the barriers.

``What we’re really lucky in is that because he was so into the arts we can do a lot of things in line with what he wanted – he supported the opera and theatre, so that means we can have musical and theatre events here. He loved dogs, so we could have our Dogs Day Out.’’

European ownership of the property dates from 1821 when Governor Lachlan Macquarie granted Edward Riley two parcels of land that included Retford Park (which he named Bloomfield).

In the 1880s it was acquired by merchant and stockbreeder Samuel Hordern, who renamed it Retford Park in recognition of family links to Retford in Nottinghamshire, England, and built the impressive Albert Bond-designed brick mansion (completed 1887).

The last Hordern resident, Samuel Hordern III, died in a car crash in 1960 and American-owned company King Ranch briefly owned the property before Fairfax bought it in 1964.

Under his tenure, Retford Park was converted from an agricultural pursuit into a gentleman’s residence.

The magnificent garden was renovated and extended and the pool, pool pavilion, aviaries and other features added.

The National Trust is now investing in the future by finding purpose and relevance among a varied audience through community partnerships to ensure the property is accessible to all as Fairfax wished.

The Ignition@Retford Park mentoring and leadership program involves six local Year 10 and 11 young people working with facilitators to devise and implement their own community-focused project.

The original dairy, schoolhouse, workers’ cottages, coach houses, stables and round yard have been converted into spaces for community and cultural events.

The Artists of the Round Yard collective held its inaugural exhibition, The Art of Giving, in November 2018, paying homage to James Fairfax, the art collector who shared his treasures with the world by regularly making his collection available to art curators at public galleries.

Retford Park is as much an example of imposing architecture and outstanding horticulture as it is a rich portrait of one man’s cultured life.

From the collection of Gucci footwear displayed in his bedroom, the two huge James Gleeson paintings in the Morning Room and the circa 1670s Mortlake tapestry in the reception room to The Conversation sculpture surrounded by a bamboo grove and the garden rooms in the grounds, Fairfax’s penchant for art and culture can be seen everywhere.

``When James Fairfax filled the house with art, he then filled the old farm manager’s cottage,’’ Pollock says. ``And when he had filled the farm manager’s cottage with art, he filled the two coach houses with art.

``It was quite incredible: There was a Titian in the hallway. He had a Rubens above the mantle in the sitting room. The Rembrandts were engravings or etchings – he had a number of them. There were von Guerard’s, McCubbins, Olsens, Streetons – basically every great Australian master you can think of.’’

Fairfax’s captivation with the Orient is evidenced with Asian-inspired decorations and object d’art throughout the house.

``Oh this is nothing,’’ Pollock says. ``There were magnificent ceremonial gowns displayed everywhere in James Fairfax’s time.’’

Today Retford Park is carefully curated, with portraits of Fairfax and professional memorabilia showing his contributions to education, medical resource and art alongside personal photos.

The eldest son of newspaper proprietor Sir Warwick Oswald Fairfax, the Oxford-educated James Fairfax spent 32 years with Fairfax (publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review), including as its chairman between 1977 and 1987.

A private man with refined taste, he enjoyed the company of artists and raconteurs such as retail baron Charles Lloyd Jones and artists Sidney Nolan and Donald Friend, who painted an outrageous detailed mural in the Retford Park dining room in the late 1960s.

In one scene, Fairfax is shown dining with his ``nearest and dearest’’, the who’s who of Australian arts, culture and politics, while other portions show his interpretation of various areas of Sydney.

Outdoors, the artistry continues in Aunty Eileen’s Best Room, a charming tongue-in-cheek outdoor living room with walls of clipped sasanqua camellias that, when in bloom, are like floral wallpaper, a rug of Silver Falls with a white thyme border and a steel-framed sofa of mattress vine with a cushion of liquorice plant.

Guests are greeted to the mansion by stone guard dogs sitting to attention overlooking The Teardrop Garden, dubbed The Blobbery by head gardener Rick Shepherd.

While imposing, the Portuguese pink-hued house with white trim is softened by mature trees and a series of ``garden rooms’’ lined with cherry laurel, thuja, photinia and box hedges which enhance, highlight and house features such as the Inge King bronze sculpture, Euphoric Angels.

Retford Park, 1325 Old South Rd, Bowral, house and gardens will be open on October 31, November 1 and December 5 & 6 for timed visits.

Bookings essential:


- Open garden only – $15 adults, $10 Concession (including children), free National Trust members, $35 families

- House and garden: $28 adults, $20 concession (including children) and $17 National Trust members

Extra tips:

Wearing a mask is a condition of entry for house tours


P: (02) 4861 1933


Norman Lindsay Gallery, Faulconbridge.

Mountain biking on the Oaks track between Glenbrook and Woodford.

The old Lucasville Station platform and stairs on the Lapstone Zig Zag track.

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