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Arthur Dale Trendall (1909–1995)

by Ian McPhee

This article was published:

Arthur Dale Trendall (1909–1995), classicist, art historian, and university administrator, was born on 28 March 1909 at Glenmore, Auckland, New Zealand, only child of Arthur Dale Trendall and his wife Iza Whaley, née Uttley-Todd, both English-born teachers. From 1916 to 1925 Dale was educated at King’s College, Auckland (dux, 1924, 1925). Having won an entrance scholarship, he proceeded to the University of Otago, then part of the University of New Zealand (BA, 1929; MA Hons, 1930), where he excelled in Latin. With a postgraduate scholarship, he moved in 1931 to Trinity College, Cambridge, and obtained (1933) a starred first in the classical tripos (part II), with distinction in archaeology. To begin this research, he moved to Italy as a Rome scholar (1934–35), and as the librarian of the British School at Rome (1936–38). During these years he learned to speak Italian fluently.

Under the influence of J. D. (Sir John) Beazley, an authority on Athenian figured pottery of the Classical period, Trendall devoted himself to the study of the red-figured vases produced in South Italy and Sicily during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. The scenes on these vases provided crucial contemporary evidence for many aspects of Greek and native culture, but the vases were scattered in museums and private collections throughout the world. Using stylistic analysis, he set out to distinguish regional styles, to identify individual painters, and to develop a detailed chronology. His remarkable achievement was due to a sensitivity to style, a phenomenal memory, constant hard work, and frequent travel. The first of his major publications dealt with the vases of ancient Poseidonia: Paestan Pottery: A Study of the Red-figured Vases of Paestum (1936). That year the work earned him a doctorate of literature from the University of New Zealand, and fellowship of Trinity College, Cambridge.

During a visit to his parents in New Zealand in 1939, Trendall accepted the chair of Greek at the University of Sydney. In 1940, anticipating Japan’s entry in World War II, he joined a group of academics who, with the support of military intelligence officers, practised breaking Japanese consular codes in their spare time. Seconded to the military in a civilian capacity, from 1942 to 1944 he headed the Diplomatic (or ‘D’) Special Intelligence Section, located in Melbourne. The section decrypted Japanese diplomatic and naval messages, and he devised a simple cypher, Trencode, suitable for use in the field. Despite the difficulties of research during wartime, he published The Shellal Mosaic and Other Classical Antiquities in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra (1942), and, as principal author, a handbook to the university’s Nicholson Museum (1945). He was particularly concerned with the rejuvenation and enlargement of the museum (honorary curator, 1939–54) and influenced the development of collections of classical antiquities across Australasia, especially at the National Gallery of Victoria (honorary consultant, 1956–92). From 1948 he also held the position of inaugural professor of archaeology at the university. He was dean of the faculty of arts (1947–50), chairman of the professorial board (1949–50 and 1952–54), and acting vice-chancellor (1953).

In early 1954 Trendall left Sydney to become the first master of University House at the Australian National University, Canberra. Charged with creating an enriching collegiate environment, he took a flexible approach to house rules observing that ‘we do not penalise peoples’ morals, only their discretion’ (West 1980, 30). In addition he assumed many other responsibilities: as deputy vice-chancellor (1958–64); member of the Australian Universities Commission (1959–70) and the National Capital Planning Committee (1958–67); and a foundation fellow and inaugural chairman of the Australian Humanities Research Council (later Australian Academy of the Humanities). His influence on higher education was considerable, in part through his personal acquaintance with Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies. At the same time his scholarly activity continued: he wrote, in elegant Italian prose, a two-volume catalogue of the South Italian vases in the Vatican Museums, Vasi antichi dipinti del Vaticano. Vasi italioti ed etruschi a figure rosse, (1953, 1955); and a two-volume work, The Red-figured Vases of Lucania, Campania, and Sicily (1967; with supplements: 1970, 1973, 1983), which remains the fundamental study of these styles.

After his retirement in 1969, Trendall moved to Melbourne where he remained for the next twenty-six years as resident fellow of the newly established La Trobe University. His flat in Menzies College (designed by Robin Boyd) became a cultural oasis for many young students. He was finally able to devote himself more fully to scholarship. His most significant work was a magisterial two-volume study, written in collaboration with Alexander Cambitoglou, titled The Red-figured Vases of Apulia (1978, 1982; with supplements: 1983, 1991–92). He also condensed a lifetime’s research into the general handbook Red Figure Vases of South Italy and Sicily (1989).

Trendall had a charm of manner and a lively wit, and his ‘conversation shimmered with his delight in his work and in the world around him’ (Boardman 1995). Among many honours, he was appointed commendatore of the Order of St Gregory the Great by the Vatican (1956), and cavaliere (1961) and commendatore (1965) of the Order of Merit by the Italian government. In 1968 he was elected an ordinary fellow of the British Academy (Kenyon medal, 1983), and was awarded a doctorate of letters by the University of Cambridge. He had been appointed CMG in 1960 and AC in 1976. He was of medium build, quick in his movements, with thinning, silvery hair in later life. On 13 November 1995 he died at Prahran, Melbourne, after a short illness and was cremated; he had never married. His remarkable photographic archive and library were bequeathed to La Trobe University as the basis of a research centre established in his name.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Boardman, John. ‘Obituary: Professor A. D. Trendall.’ Independent (London), 25 November 1995. Accessed 18 October 2018. Copy held on ADB file
  • Green, J. R. ‘Arthur Dale Trendall: A Memoir.’ In Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman, and Cynthia Troup, 5.1–5.5. Clayton, Vic.: Monash University ePress, 2008
  • Handley, E. W., David Ridgway, Dyfri Williams, and J. R. Green. ‘A Celebration of the Life of Dale Trendall.’ Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 41 (1996): 1–30
  • McPhee, Ian. ‘A. D. Trendall 1909‒1995: A Memoir.’ Proceedings of the British Academy 97 (1998), 501–17. Reprinted in Myth, Drama, and Style in South Italian Vase-Painting: Selected Papers by A. D. Trendall, edited by Ian McPhee, xi–xxiv. Uppsala: Åströms förlag, 2016
  • Merrillees, R. S. Professor A. D. Trendall and His Band of Classical Cryptographers. Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Working Paper no. 355. Canberra: the Centre, Australian National University, 2001
  • Metzger, Henri. ‘Arthur Dale Trendall (1909–1995).’ Revue Archéologique 2 (1996): 411–13
  • National Archives of Australia. A6923, 37/401/425
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Trendall Research Centre, La Trobe University. Papers of A. D. Trendall
  • Turner, Michael. ‘A. D. Trendall and the Nicholson Museum.’ In Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum: The Nicholson Museum, the University of Sydney, edited by Michael Turner and Alexander Cambitoglou, 7–11. Sydney: Nicholson Museum, 2014
  • West, Francis. University House: A Portrait of an Institution. Canberra: Australian National University, 1980

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ian McPhee, 'Trendall, Arthur Dale (1909–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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