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Arthur Dale Trendall (1909–1995)

by Richard Johnson

Dale Trendall, the founding Master of University House, died in Melbourne early last month, after a long illness.

He was born and educated in New Zealand, in the field of Classics. After graduating from the University of New Zealand, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, on a scholarship and there took a starred first in the Classics Tripos, specialising in classical art and archaeology. He then worked at the British School in Rome and wrote the study which earned him the Doctorate of Letters of the University of New Zealand at the age of 26. He was appointed to the Chair of Greek at the University of Sydney in 1940 in succession to Enoch Powell, who had resigned to join the British Army on the outbreak of World War II.

Trendall's particular field of study was South Italian pottery and vase painting from about 440 to the end of the fourth century BC (after which the painting ceased or became no more than daubs). It cannot be claimed that this was great art, and he once opened a contemporary art exhibition with the statement:"I have spent my life in the study of bad art". However, the identification of individual painters and schools of painters, and of potteries, their links with each other and with Attic models, and the dissemination of the vases throughout the Greek colonies of Southern Italy and Sicily enabled conclusions to be drawn about economic and social development which contributed to the work of modern historians of those regions and periods. He also had a particular interest in scenes of dramatic presentations on the vases, and some valuable knowledge of the presentation of Greek drama is derived from such scenes.

It was not, however, the history which excited him. Trendall had a phenomenal visual memory; he could look at a vase he had never seen before and place it to an obscure painter or school which he had last seen years previously, on the basis of the stylistic similarities. When one considers that about 20,000 vases of the period are known, and he knew every one, the magnitude of the memory may be appreciated. Nor, of course, was it only memory; he had an eye for style and for details of execution which enabled him to produce his great classificatory collections: Paestan, Campanian, Apulian, Lucanian, Sicilian.

One achievement which gave him great satisfaction is akin to that of the astronomer who predicts the existence of a star before it is discovered. On the basis of characteristics in some Sicilian and other South Italian vases which could not be attributed to the influences of other schools or regions, Trendall postulated that there must be in the region a whole school of vase-painting, none of whose vases had been discovered, and he listed some of the characteristics which would mark this style. In the 1970s a group of vases was found in the Lipari islands closely corresponding to his prediction.

His scholarly achievements and publications brought him honours in Australia and overseas, including fellowships of the British Academy and Accademia dei Lincei and a knighthood from the Vatican. He was a founding member of the Australian Academy of Humanities, a member of the first Universities Commission, a member of the Royal Commission into the University of Tasmania and numerous other governmental bodies. During World War II he worked with the cryptographers on Japanese naval codes.

He was Professor of Greek at Sydney University for 10 years (and for at least one year was concurrently Professor of Archaeology) and then accepted the invitation to be the first Master of University House. The House developed a distinctive lifestyle under his guidance, where good food, good wine and good company from all parts of the world combined to produce a stimulating ambience. The kylix (drinking cup) which is the House's symbol was his idea. The Classics Museum in the A. D. Hope building was also his idea, and as Deputy Vice-Chancellor for several years he occasionally found donors or useful caches of funds to add to the University's collection of Greek vases. When he became aware of a group of vases, apparently once placed together in a single tomb (about half of them by the one painter), he persuaded the University to acquire them, originally for the Menzies Library - hence his name "the Menzies Painter" for the painter; other vases by this hand are now recognised in various collections around the world. Trendall also acquired several vases for University House which the Classics Museum has on loan from the House.

On turning 60 in 1969, he retired from this University. He had possibly the best specialised library in his field of study in the world, and he wanted to keep it together. La Trobe University offered him an apartment and accommodation for the library, and from there he continued his scholarly activities until very recently. He was still publishing in the 1990s.

He was a brilliant lecturer, not only on classical art but also on the Greek and Roman poets. He loved Italy and all things Italian, was fluent in the language and was a pillar of the Dante Alighieri Society. He was a fine mentor to many young academics, several of whom are still connected with ANU. He was a caring and supportive only son to his parents until their deaths. He was a lifelong bachelor and leaves no family. His memory lives in the hearts of many.

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Richard Johnson, 'Trendall, Arthur Dale (1909–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

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