It is a chilly December evening in London, and on the floor of this hospital the windows are an opaque grey and the floor so shiny the nurses’ shoes squeak. The door opens and closes silently and when closed shadowed movement dances in the stripe of light under the door.
In this modernist room lies Edmund Capon whose health is not good and I suspect not improved by an environment that he would associate with an airport bathroom (there is no late Picasso on these walls. It is grim, even a Cy Twombly would help).
All hospital rooms are pastel favouring pink, blue or green, the lighting is neon casting a harsh light that turns whites slightly blue. Electronic medical devices flicker and chirp at eye level, clear bags of fluid drain drugs downward.
The Sunday Times has drifted towards the bed’s edge. Edmund’s mottled hands and arms are grievously bruised by the IV. High up on a screen soccer players move soundlessly – little men running on green, occasionally a large sweating face smacks in to vision. Edmund’s interest flickered and he spoke softly about Chelsea FC and how all those years ago he would hardly miss a match. He spoke of the technical ability of players of the modern game. As usual banal conversation is soothing in such circumstance.
Edmund could sell you the essence of a Piero Della Francesca as easily as the therapeutic virtues of a fine Havana or the beauty in Chinese calligraphy. He was capable around a court and his athleticism mitigated any disdain that an English cultured gentleman of the Arts may attract. His good will and enthusiasm were usually effective and apparent. This was a little diminished when I visited him in Chelsea but not altogether gone. He still had the innuendo of mischief about him, even prone. Drugs had replaced his ruddy, chiselled good looks with a puffiness but it couldn’t hide the crinkly wryness around his eyes or the subtle amusement of his lips. His physical affection for people had not faded, his hand reaching out for the warmth of a handshake. He muttered very lightly about his condition but I think the indignity of his plight was more wounding. His exhausted gaze shifted to my face when I mentioned that I had seen the Bellini-Mantegna exhibition of paintings and drawings at the National Gallery, London. His interest was not surprising as he had spent the major part of his life immersed in the study of beautiful art objects and their accompanying cultures.
In 1978 Edmund was appointed director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, ‘AGNSW’, a tousle-headed young Englishman who knew a lot about Asian art and very little about Australia. In some circles his appointment wasn’t popular but it turned out that the Pom could dance. He waltzed Neville Wran in to funding a major redevelopment of the AGNSW and symbolically removed the public admission fees to enter the gallery. Edmund believed the public should not have to pay to see a collection that they already owned and the board was reorganised to make it more effective.
There was something Kiplingesque about Edmund; a rogue who may do as he is told but probably not – occasionally AWOL but always effective – ‘Flashman’ with an aesthete’s understanding of beauty and the infinite – a rather rare mix. In some ways Edmund was a modern version of the old ‘new chum’ – disarming a sceptical mob with intelligent instructions camouflaged by an understood camaraderie – all this underlined by a lithe, tousled, boyish swagger. He viewed the arts as a lush field where beauty danced with tradition and because he was superbly trained he easily understood the work of Rover Thomas or Cy Twombly or Fred Williams, even Cézzane and how it all related. I would say Edmund engaged with diversity before its recent obnoxious notoriety.
I am glad I went to see Edmund, after all he gave us a lot. A defender of beauty and style and maybe an example of how effective subtle manners can be. As always he was finally cared for by Joanna his beloved wife of 42 years. Through all the years her love, intelligence and stoicism was his bedrock. What does one say about bereavement? It seems to me that modesty is required as it is unbecoming to display emotion in the face of inevitability – no heart on the sleeve but in a way Edmund did show his heart to all who knew him – complex, warm and sensual as he was.
In the round up Edmund suited us. He was by instinct a socialist and by nature egalitarian. He effortlessly communicated the highest ideals of aesthetics and culture to the broader community with a charm and good humour. He was an Australian citizen.
Now to paraphrase Dickens; ‘the tide comes in and the tide goes out and Barkus is willing’.
Well Barkus wasn’t willing as there was still much to do but as the light darkens and he boards the boat across the Styx all will be well I hope.
I will miss him greatly