Full House - Scion of Australia's great newspaper dynasty, Sir Warwick Fairfax lived in a Sydney mansion that was a showcase for artistic wonders, says Candice Bruce

Fairwater is a grand 19th-century mansion that sits on slightly more than two acres of land at Seven Shillings Beach on Sydney Harbour. The half-timbered house was built in the early 1880s, and went through a number of owners before being bought at the turn of the century by Sir James Oswald Fairfax and his wife, Mabel. They would be astounded to know that today it is the largest building remaining in private hands on Sydney Harbour. In 2018, Fairwater became,
to nobody's surprise, the most valuable home in Australia when it was bought by a tech billionaire.

Its history is every bit as extravagant as its present. In 1967, Sir Warwick Fairfax – the only child of Sir James and Mabel – and his third wife, Mary, Lady Fairfax, moved in. For several decades thereafter, Fairwater and its surrounding gardens (home to a number of listed trees) were the setting for the most glamorous parties ever held in Sydney.

There were dinners that seated scores of guests, dog shows that rivalled Crufts, fashion parades, luncheons and cocktail parties, at which Australian mining magnates, politicians, artists, opera singers and socialites were drawn together with a seasoning of celebrities and film stars.

Nicholas Coleridge, now chairman of the Victoria and Albert Museum, recalls that at one such party there were "elaborate silver salt cellars shaped like carriages pulled by silver-winged Cupids", while other guests fondly remembered an ice sculpture of a kangaroo from whose pouch Mary would serve caviar. In 1973, Warwick and Mary held a ball for 800 people to celebrate the opening of the Sydney Opera House, with a guest list that included the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, Rudolf Nureyev, Liberace, Imelda Marcos and Rex Harrison. Sydney had never seen anything like it.

Sir Warwick and Lady Fairfax with Kirk Douglas and his wife, Anne, at a typically opulent party at Fairwater

The Fairfaxes were a news dynasty almost without rival in Australia – only the Murdochs or Packers could come near to matching their influence. Warwick's great-grandfather was John Fairfax, who took over The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia's oldest continuously produced newspaper, in 1841. Over the years, the family added newspapers including The Sun-Herald, Melbourne's The Age and The Australian Financial Review to their holdings, as well as television channels such as Sydney's Channel 7.

Warwick's parents, James and Mabel – known to all as 'Lady Jim', and routinely described by her peers as "forthright" – were active and sociable. They attached great importance to civic duty, especially
in response to the horrors of the First World War. This principle they instilled in their heir. When they weren't raising money for charities such as the Red Cross, they enjoyed sailing and playing golf. Pioneering motorists, they would drive a French-made 6hp Dion up to Sospel, their house in the Blue Mountains. Collecting art was part of this lifestyle, too, with landscapes by Hans Heysen, the German-Australian watercolourist, a favourite. Fairwater and Sospel both had grand gardens.

Then, in the late 1920s, the family suffered a series of bereavements: James, ames's brother Geoffrey and his sister-in- law were all dead by 1930. Warwick was on honeymoon with first wife Betty when his father suddenly died on the green at the 18th hole of the Royal Sydney. ("Played Good Game to the End", the rival Daily Telegraph declared of the much-admired Sir James.) Warwick was summoned to return. Having worked as a contributor and sub-editor at The Herald – his biographer describes the "confidence and ease" of even his earliest journalistic work – Warwick stepped up his role in the family's media empire, relying heavily on his uncle Geoffrey. When Geoffrey died, Warwick received not only an inheritance from his father, but also significant sums from other members of the Fairfax family. This shy, sensitive, dutiful, donnish, even priestly only child became, in just a handful of years, one of Australia's wealthiest men.

It was not the Fairfax way to sit back on earlier triumphs. Under Warwick, Fairfax acquired The Home, the Australian design and interiors magazine. With covers designed by the finest modern artists in Sydney, the magazine was urbane and internationalist. More significantly, it brought Warwick into contact with the influential Sydney Ure Smith, who was its founder. Ure Smith was a significant presence in the world of Australian art: he was the owner of Art in Australia, a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and for 26 years president of the NSW Society of Artists.

It was during this time that several of the works to be offered by Bonhams in the sale Fairwater: The Collection of Sir Warwick and Lady Fairfax in Sydney in September entered the Fairfax homes. But this
was also due to a fresh influence on the domestic front.

By 1945, Warwick's first marriage had ended in divorce. Through their mutual love of ballet, he met a beautiful and artistic Danish woman who was 15 years his junior. Hanne Anderson was also very involved with the AGNSW and the Contemporary Art Society, as well as being a friend of artists such as Francis Lymburner, Rupert Bunny and Douglas Dundas. Hanne and Warwick were married in 1948.

Hanne had grown up in pre-war Singapore, where her father was a rubber planter, but studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where one of her contemporaries had been Jørn Utzon, who went on to design the Sydney Opera House.

By now, Warwick was an habitué of Sydney's many commercial galleries,Lloyd Jones – who just happened to be Ure Smith's brother-in-law.

In 1944, Warwick bought a colonial homestead Harrington Park, where he began to breed Poll Hereford cattle. Spending less time at the office, he set about renovating the historic house and entered a period of religious and philosophical enquiry, which resulted in a number of (self-published) books, including Metaphysics of a Mystic (1947). In the 1950s, three plays he had written were staged in Sydney. Meanwhile, he moved from his position as Managing Director to take on the Chairmanship of the company. His marriage to Hanne ended; they divorced in 1959.

By the beginning of the 1960s, he had met and married the gregarious Mary Symonds, née Wien, a Polish-born Sydney socialite. They had three children. For casual entertaining, the Fairfaxes owned a house in Bondi. Demonstrating Warwick's intensifying interest in interior décor, the furniture and art from this house featured in an article in Vogue Australia in 1967. Decorated by Marion Hall Best, the interiors juxtaposed, for example, contemporary art by John Olsen with
a Chippendale sideboard and an Eero Saarinen Tulip dining setting to create a Swinging Sixties feel. Art was everywhere in the house, though when it was noted in the article that there was even "a Lymburner in the laundry", the couple were savagely lampooned in the
popular press. Warwick and Mary shared a particular love of Rodin, making several purchases of his work through the David Jones Art
Gallery. Indeed, a six-foot bronze Rodin nude stood in the entrance hall at Fairwater.

Rodin's Tête colossale de Pierre de Wiessant. Bronze with brown-black patina 81.8cm (321⁄4in) high. Estimate: £40,000 - 60,000 ($50,000 - 75,000)

Sir Warwick Fairfax died in 1987. Mary had been devoted to him ("Everything should be done to please him," she once noted) and to cope with her bereavement, she turned her time and energy to the extraordinary penthouse apartment (complete with its own ballroom) across three floors of the Pierre Hotel in New York City, from which much of the furniture in this auction was acquired; John Paul Getty, Yves Saint-Laurent and Elizabeth Taylor had each lived there before Lady Fairfax bought the property in 1988. For five years, her entertaining continued there apace, just as extravagant as before. At one point, forbidden by her doctor from flying due to ill health, Mary simply ordered her chauffeur to purchase a Rolls-Royce – and drive her from New York to Los Angeles in that. But, when Lady Fairfax died at the age of 95 in 2017, she was once again resident at Fairwater.

Dr Candice Bruce is an art historian, curator and writer.
Sale: Fairwater: The Collection of Sir Warwick and Lady Fairfax
Sunday 22 September at 1pm
Enquiries: Merryn Schriever
+61 2 8412 2222 [email protected]


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