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Fairburn has been living in Australia since 1976. Her artwork has been exhibited in Winchester, Amantea (Italy), Melbourne and Castlemaine.
Fairburn was born in London. She was educated at St. Swinthun's School for girls, Winchester, the Winchester School of Art and the Institute of Education, University of London.
In the mid-1950s, she taught art at St. Bonaventure's boys' school Forest Gate, east of London, and in 1958 took a job at Masjid-i-Sulieman, Iran, teaching art and music to the children of the employees of an American oil company. In 1957 and again in the early 1960's, she painted a number of (now destroyed) murals on religious subjects at St. Peter's primary school in Winchester. She travelled in Europe and Africa during 1962 to 1965. She returned to Winchester, and held a number of exhibitions.
In 1967 she left England, intending to drive across Europe and Asia to Australia, but had to turn back at India due to bureaucratic difficulties. She wintered in Teheran, where a friend was working for the British Council, and read his copy of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. On her return to England, she executed a suite of pictures based on the novel, mainly in coloured ink, and in May 1968 sent them to Tolkien. He wrote back in strongly approving terms, telling Fairburn her pictures were "splendid. They are better pictures in themselves and also show far more attention to the text than any that have yet been submitted to me" (letter of 24 May 1968). In a subsequent letter, he wrote, "After seeing your specimens I am beginning to change my mind [that is, about not having The Lord of the Rings illustrated], and I think that an illustrated edition might be a good thing." However, soon after this, Tolkien broke his leg in a fall, and was hospitalised; Fairburn was in difficult financial circumstances and needed to urgently pursue more immediately rewarding work, and the Tolkien family home in Oxford was packed up for a move to the English south coast. As a result of these disruptions the negotiations between the writer and artist went no further.
Unable to find secure housing or employment, Mary Fairburn left England in autumn 1974, and travelled through Asia, eventually settling in Melbourne, Australia, where she taught a range of courses for the Council for Adult Education, and met her husband, Patrick Currie Flegg. They retired to Castlemaine, Victoria, in 1993. She became involved there with a number of musical ensembles, notably Odds and Sods.
- Letter to Mary Fairburn (May 1968)
- Letter to Mary Fairburn (4 September 1968)
- Letter to Mary Fairburn (10 October 1968)
- Letter to Mary Fairburn (4 November 1968)