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SVS Foundation News

News stories from the School and Old Suttonian communities

News > Deaths and Obituaries > Obituary - Dr Edmund Capon (1958 L)

Obituary - Dr Edmund Capon (1958 L)

The following obituary is largely taken from The Art Newspaper, with additional content from his friend and fellow Old Suttonian Gary Ma (1969 L).
When news broke of the death of Dr Edmund Capon OBE (1958 L) back in March, obituaries in many of the UK broadsheets prompted multiple Old Suttonians to get in touch to pass on the sad news. Such was Edmund’s celebrity and the warmth to which his fellow OS held him. The following obituary is largely taken from The Art Newspaper, with additional content from his friend and fellow Old Suttonian Gary Ma (1969 L).  

Edmund George Capon was born in Sidcup in 1940. After prep school, he arrived at Sutton Valence in 1952. In a School career that spanned six years, he represented SVS at both Rugby and Cricket and would go on to become the Head of School in 1957. Upon leaving the School, he obtained a Master of Philosophy degree in Chinese Art and Archaeology from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and also studied 20th-century painting at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

Having graduated, Edmund worked in the textile department of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He would work his way up to become a Chinese-specialising keeper in the Far Eastern Section of the museum. He married Ann Fairclough in 1964 and they had a son, Dominic in 1965 and a daughter, Tara in 1969. They divorced in 1975 and his subsequent romance to future wife Joanna caused something of a scandal given her  then-marriage to a peer of the realm. When the dust settled she and Edmund formalised their union in 1977, and remained together to the end. The pair emigrated to Australia in 1978 when Edmund was appointed as Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

From the beginning of his tenure in that role, Capon set out to shake up the moribund institution. He abolished entry fees, established a lively exhibition programme, and expanded acquisitions in areas such as Asian and indigenous art. He also acquired key works by old and modern masters through a mixture of purchase and private donation.

He will always be known for the Entombed Warriors exhibition of 1982 which assembled figures from the tomb of China’s first emperor and brought in a record 800,000 visitors, but there were plenty of other successful blockbusters along the way. He presided over the annual circus of the Archibald Prize for portraiture with the practised skill of a ringmaster, draining every drop of publicity from this popular event.

Capon’s outspoken, flamboyant style was a perfect fit for Sydney, a city famously indifferent to anywhere else in Australia or the world. He was always available for an interview or a statement. He spent an enormous amount of time at the gallery, both after-hours and on weekends. A fierce dislike of snobbery put him on first-name terms with almost every staff member.

When problems arose, Capon would sail through with a calculated haughtiness that invariably defused criticism. He had a wily streak, and there were often reasons to question or disagree with his actions, but at no stage did he allow any dispute to impinge on his professionalism. No matter how exasperating, he had the knack of bouncing back. Capon made enemies easily, but brushed them aside with casual disdain. 

Those who knew him well saw a generous and compassionate person behind the provocative exterior. He clung gamely to his scholarly aspirations and took every opportunity to involve himself in the gallery’s public programmes. In 2009 he would publish a book of essays and lectures titled I Blame Duchamp.
Capon often resembled one of those well-worn characters from English drama: the loveable rogue, but he brought his own special flair to the role. His bluff charm made him adept at extracting funds from private donors and government ministers. He presided over a major expansion of the Asian galleries in 2003.

When he finally surrendered his role as the AGNSW’s great helmsman it became clear what a powerhouse Capon had been. He left a legacy of sustained achievement that no Australian gallery director can match. A larger-than-life character who led from the front, he gained the affection and esteem of his staff, the media and the public. It was hard to imagine the AGNSW without Edmund, and it is just as hard to imagine the planet in the same condition.

Edmund George Capon died in London on 13 March. He is survived by his wife, Joanna, and by two children, Tara and Dominic, from a first marriage, as well as Joanna’s three children, Iona, James and Rebecca. Edmund’s funeral was held on Tuesday 11th June 2019 and was attended by fellow Old Suttonian Gary Ma (1969 L), who had met Edmund during his later life. Gary has kindly added the following:

“I was lucky enough to befriend Edmund the year before he retired. In fact, my wife, Susan, a retired registered nurse, painted a water colour retirement card as a gift for Edmund on behalf of the AGNSW Voluntary Guides. A celebration of his life was held in Sydney with official proceedings from 6:30 to 7:30pm in recognition of his leadership and dedicated service to the gallery. 

There were hundreds of people attending this special event, including The Honourable Malcolm Turnbull (Prime Minister of Australia 2015-2018), The Honourable Bob Carr (Premier of New South Wales 1995-2005) and a number of other current and past politicians and distinguished guests. Mr Michael Brand, the current Director of AGNSW, made the opening speech and was followed by other well-known Australian artists and writers. Live music, featuring many of Edmund’s favourites, was played throughout the evening. 

Joanna Capon, his widow, then made the final speech. All of the guests were offered a Magnum ice cream at the conclusion of the evening as Edmund’s favourite late night snack after a long and stressful day!”

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