Arthur Rex Dugard Fairburn was born at his parents' house beside the Auckland Domain on 2 February 1904. His mother, Teresa Harland, was a gifted musician; his father, Arthur Fairburn, became a music critic, but supported his family as a clerk, then as an accountant. The eldest of three brothers, Rex spent his boyhood and adolescence in Parnell, his youth and early manhood at Green Bay. The landscapes of Auckland's Tāmaki isthmus, the Waitākere Range, the Manukau and Waitematā Harbours, the iron-sand beaches of the Tasman coast and the marine geography of the Hauraki Gulf were to become key elements in his poetry.
Formal education began at Parnell and Remuera primary schools, then from 1918 to 1920 Fairburn attended Auckland Grammar School. He was not markedly academic or scholarly, but had a capacity for writing clear, well-argued prose, and a developing satiric wit. His mother, a speculative spirit who followed the dictates of a nonconformist conscience, encouraged his reading and created an environment of classical music. Fairburn became a precocious reader, interested, by the time he left school, in the arts and social issues. He did not matriculate. At Auckland Grammar in 1920 he met the youth whose gifts probably attracted him to poetry: R. A. K. Mason raised poetic, philosophical and political questions central to Fairburn for the rest of his life.
Fairburn spent the 1920s at his parents' home, until 1926 unhappily employed as a clerk at the New Zealand Insurance Company in Auckland. Then he left in disgust to spend three months on Norfolk Island, and was not to find regular employment again until 1934. The 1920s was a period of political conservatism in the middle-class milieux with which he was most familiar, and confirmed him firstly in left-wing, even communist, sympathies, which in time would broaden into a visionary, religious anarchism; secondly in a sense of vocation as a writer of poetry, criticism and social commentary.
He took to wandering Auckland's coastlines and countryside. Tall, athletic and very fit, he excelled in rugby, golf and swimming. This last he saw almost as a spiritual exercise: a communing with the sea that signified for him life's most essential rhythms. Already charismatic and eccentric, he most resembled his paternal grandfather, Edwin Fairburn, an imaginative thinker and traveller in nineteenth century New Zealand.
In 1927 Fairburn published his first poem. It had been jointly written with Geoffrey de Montalk, a littérateur of royalist Polish descent, who, in his bohemian insistence on the poet's vocation, had until 1932 some influence on Fairburn. Early poems by Fairburn, cast in the language of late romanticism, tended to be literary and derivative. Few hint at the later, profound evocation of his surroundings, though they reveal his fine sense of rhythm and his abiding concerns with love, mortality and nature. This stylistic phase was marked by the publication in London in 1930 of his first book, He shall not rise.
By this time Fairburn was himself in London, having arrived in October that year wanting to write and to be free of the New Zealand in which he felt he was stagnating. Apart from six weeks spent walking in France and northern Spain he stayed for two years in England. There he became acquainted with London's literary and bohemian life, and found it generally not to his liking. He was glad, however, to work with the poet and publisher Charles Lahr, and the editor A. R. Orage, who published his political commentaries in the New English Weekly. Acquaintance with the sculptor Jacob Epstein, the art patron Lucy Wertheim, and the painters Frances Hodgkins and Leon Underwood was significant in developing his particular aesthetic.
Most important was his meeting with Jocelyn Mays, a New Zealand art student at the Slade School of Fine Art. They fell in love and withdrew to the Wiltshire countryside. On 19 November 1931 they married at Pewsey, Wiltshire, and their first child, a daughter, Corin, was born the following year.
In the English countryside Fairburn clarified his views on art and society, corresponding with R. A. K. Mason, Clifton Firth (an Auckland photographer and communist) and Jasper Brett, a friend of the 1920s. He accepted the modernist movement but rejected the more analytical and intellectualised aspects of its aesthetic theories. He remained left wing, strongly in sympathy with the victims of the depression. Although retaining his respect for Karl Marx as a historical philosopher, he rejected the rigid materialism of the communists. It was, he believed, the anti-usury strategy of C. H. Douglas's social credit theory that would break the financial deadlock of the depression. But he was a long way towards the anarchist position, and would accept no doctrine absolutely.
In October 1932 the Fairburns returned to New Zealand. They lived in New Lynn, Auckland, and had three further children: a boy, Hanno, and two girls, Janis and Dinah. Fairburn worked as a labourer, chipping weeds on a relief gang. In 1934 he became minutes secretary to the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Farmers' Union, a job that lasted until 1942 when he was conscripted, then manpowered into the National Broadcasting Service. He stayed as a script writer and sometime broadcaster until 1947, when he became a self-employed fabric printer.
These years saw Fairburn's emergence as a poet and critic of the arts, one of a loose grouping who wanted to make their work reflect the reality of New Zealand's social, historical and physical circumstances. This was not nationalism in any narrow sense. Fairburn was committed to finding universality of expression in the particulars of life in New Zealand, but he remained contemptuous of jingoistic nationalism and suspicious of the state.
Among those significant for him in helping develop this sense of identity were the writers Jane Mander, Frank Sargeson, R. A. K. Mason, Charles Brasch and Denis Glover, the painter Eric Lee-Johnson, and the composer Douglas Lilburn. His own poetry reached its richest culmination with 'To a friend in the wilderness' (1949), a poetic dialogue covering his deepest concerns and employing language rare in twentieth century English poetry for its combination of rhythmic fullness, lucidity and breadth of feeling.
Of major significance, too, was Dominion, published by Denis Glover's Caxton Press in 1938; and Poems, 1929–1941, published by Glover in 1943, then, with additions, as Strange rendezvous in 1953. Dominion is arguably the most important political poem written in New Zealand, though its range goes far beyond the political, anticipating both ecological and spiritual concerns of the late twentieth century. In form it is, of all his poems, most affected by the open structure of T. S. Eliot's 'The waste land'. But Fairburn had little time for the intellectualism and morbidity of Eliot, and most of his mature poems give substance to his belief, expressed in the words of Milton, that the language of poetry should be 'simple, sensuous and passionate'. His finest love poems were definitive. Were they not, asked James K. Baxter, 'the best love poems in N.Z., and possibly the best among all moderns, not excepting Auden'?
As an essayist Fairburn ranged widely, promoting libertarian values and a modernist aesthetic, qualified by the best that lay in tradition. Central to his thinking was a belief in the civilising mission of the arts, and he wrote that 'A community without literature would be at best an ant-hill, at worst a mere criminal conspiracy against Nature.'
But at times a more bigoted and censorious side showed, particularly in the disenchanted view of women informing 'The woman problem', unpublished in his lifetime. An increasing paranoia about homosexuality was visible to most friends in his later life, and there were sometimes failures of critical judgement, the most notable being his vehement attack on the painting of Colin McCahon.
His critical writing was usually clear and intelligent, his prose in essays, journalism and letters effortless and elegant. Notable among many pieces are 'Some aspects of New Zealand art and letters' (1934), We New Zealanders (1944) and 'What life means to me'. He was a witty, though at times gauche, satirist in both verse and prose. Best known are 'The sky is a limpet' (1939), his Joycean parody of Michael Joseph Savage, and The rakehelly man (1946). Both 'The sky is a limpet' and How to ride a bicycle in seventeen lovely colours (1946) were fine collaborations with the typographer Bob Lowry.
In December 1946 the Fairburns moved to Devonport. Since the 1930s family life had accommodated a ceaseless stream of visitors and the distractedness of a wandering, erratic husband and father. This pattern persisted, Fairburn covering more of the country as he became a more public figure. He always regarded the coastline north of Auckland, particularly the Mahurangi Harbour, as his spiritual home. From 1940 he visited its inlets regularly, staying often with a publisher he had met in London, Terry Bond.
The only positions Fairburn held that were in any way commensurate with his talents were those of tutor in English at Auckland University College (1948–49) and lecturer in the history and theory of fine arts at the Elam School of Art from 1950. Academic teaching coincided with his widest involvement in public affairs, his causes ranging from championing organic agriculture and a proper sewerage scheme for Auckland, to promoting the Wertheim collection of contemporary British painting and a socialised medical system. His last years, however, saw a lessening of lyrical poetry, and then a swift onset of cancer.
Fairburn died at his home on 25 March 1957, survived by his wife and children. His death shocked the intellectual and artistic community of New Zealand. He had been regarded as a man of unflagging strength and unique charisma, a spokesman for the best in civilised values.