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A showman and a scholar who lived his passion

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Edmund Capon kept hundreds of giraffes in his Sydney home and his office at the Art Gallery of NSW. Not the real ones, of course, but a menagerie of inanimate giraffes, including a sculpture, a cluster of paintings, among them a Brett Whiteley, a Royal Doulton giraffe and a jigsaw giraffe.

Edmund Capon with one of his favourite animals. Credit:Barry Chapman

Giraffes, he thought were “beautiful movers with an extraordinary, slow gait. I love bamboo, too. Bamboo and giraffes have something in common. They are both very languid”.

While giraffes took pride of place on his office walls the dominant artwork was a Chinese scroll, painted especially for him. The calligraphy indicated Capon’s role. Translated, it meant "isolated throne”, in other words, the boss.

Edmund Capon and The Masks of Mystery Exhibition at the Art gallery of NSW.Credit:Ben Rushton

Capon, who died last week, moved into the director's office of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1978 and remained there for 33 years, never forgetting the advice of his mentor, Sherman Emory Lee, the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, who told Capon he would need to be part showman, part scholar and part administrator.

He maintained all those roles and added more, becoming a fixture of Sydney society who charmed patrons, sponsors and the media, paid attention to the big end of town and managed the gallery’s trustees.

Capon’s career began when he worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, first in a department that focused on Chinese costumes and textiles and then as the assistant keeper of the Far Eastern section of the museum. Specialisation, he once said, suits many “but there is only so far one can go”.

Capon wanted to expand his horizons which is why he was happy to accept an offer he described as “very eccentric and most interesting". Peter Laverty had retired as the AGNSW director in November 1977 and Gil Docking was acting director when a subcommittee of the gallery searched for a new director. Charles Lloyd Jones, then deputy president of the gallery, suggested Capon might be the right person. The go-between was Peter Valkenburg, the NSW agent-general in London. After they met, Capon flew to Sydney for an interview at the gallery then returned to London where he met Neville Wran, the NSW Premier. Wran said: “I gave him the final once-over and the deal was done.”

Capon had been to Australia before he took the job. With his wife, Joanna, he........

© The Age