17 October 2022

Vale Angus Trumble: a man of wit, charm and scholarship ... and just a bit naughty

| Sally Hopman
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Angus Trumble

Former Director of the National Portrait Gallery Angus Trumble, who died this week aged 58. Photo: National Portrait Gallery.

Few directors of internationally acclaimed cultural institutions would don a Hugh Jackman mask and lead their staff, singing and dancing, in a video, but Angus Trumble was no ordinary CEO.

The Director of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Canberra from 2014 to 2018, Angus Trumble was, according to those who knew him, one in a million.

Back in 2016 when NPG staff got wind of an international “Dance-Off”, a contest which pitted museums and galleries from across the world against each other for digital stardom, they flagged with Angus the idea of entering as a great way to boost the young gallery’s digital presence. Apparently he took little convincing.

That was Angus, Karen Vickery said of her former boss and friend.

The last week has been one of sadness for Angus’s many friends and colleagues after learning of his sudden death on 11 October. He was 58.

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Karen was part of the NPG’s executive team from 2011 to earlier this year as Director of Access and Learning. She has fond memories of Angus.

“He leapt at the chance to be in the Dance-Off,” Karen said. “I think he rather liked the idea of being an actor himself. I always thought it was something he would like to pursue. He was a real showman. But I remember him saying to me once that although he would have loved to have gone into the theatre, the only part he could have played was himself.”

Led by Angus, NPG staff sang and danced to the tune of Can’t Get Hugh Out Of My Head (with apologies to Kylie Minogue) and were highly commended for their efforts.

It is just one memory of a man who made an indelible mark.

In a statement, the NPG said the organisation was “devastated” by the news of his death, saying under Angus’s tenure the NPG reached a number of significant milestones, not least its 20th anniversary and subsequent blockbuster exhibition.

“Angus was a creative, dynamic and highly regarded leader,” it said. “We are deeply saddened by the news of his passing, he will be missed by his many Portrait Gallery friends.

“Angus was unfailing in his commitment to the institution, at the same time infusing all areas of the gallery’s work with his distinctive wit, charm, erudition and scholarship.”

Angus Trumble was born on 6 October, 1964, in Melbourne and studied Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne before later working as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.

In later years he was to live and work around the world, from the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome to the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University after winning a Fulbright Scholarship. He returned to Australia in the late 1990s to work at the Art Gallery of South Australia before being appointed curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Centre for British Art in the United States in 2003, staying there until he went to the NPG.

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Karen Vickery said he could have fun as a boss and had a naughty sense of humour but still had the ability to be taken seriously.

“Angus was someone who could always communicate across the organisation very effectively,” she said. “He had this wonderful personal touch with people.

“He was also always sartorially elegant, he loved to wear his kilt on formal occasions. His eye for detail was amazing, right down to his socks.

“One of his favourite things was a pin he acquired from the estate of Dame Nellie Melba, he loved wearing it on special occasions.”

Karen said his elegance – and quirkiness – was just part of his make-up.

“One of his favourite day suits was of grey flannel … but typical Angus, it had a subtle pink stripe through it.”

Angus was also a prolific writer, including as a regular contributor to The Times Literary Supplement, and curated and wrote the catalogue for a number of exhibitions. She said his love for the arts was only matched by that for the language.

“His feeling for the arts was extraordinary, but he was also a wonderful wordsmith and writer. He had this wonderful blog too, Trumbology.


One of Karen Vickery’s favourite memories of her friend and boss Angus Trumble was the NPG’s 21st birthday “when we all got dressed to the nines”. Photo: Mark Mohell and Jane Duong, NPG.

“He quoted poetry when he was asked for his vision … he used the language so beautifully.”

But it was his sense of humour that Karen said would be especially missed. She recalled the NPG’s 21st birthday that, when it came time to cut the cake, Angus popped out of it.

“Somehow even when he was being naughty he always managed to maintain his dignity.”

After retiring in 2018, Angus took up some research work with the National Musuem of Australia, opting to stay in Canberra “because he loved it so much here”.

In its statement, the NPG said: “A friend and mentor to many of us lucky enough to have worked with him, Angus will be sorely missed by his National Portrait Gallery colleagues. We extend our deepest condolences to his family”.

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