In search of indigenous artists

R. K. de Silva, courtesy of Art Sri Lanka

Most of the indigenous artists appears to have been restricted to temple murals and drawings on cloth, such as flags and banners.  Of the few of these artists who painted in the water colour medium, the traditions of temple art have been maintained, the colours being generally confined to white, red, yellow, black and more rarely, blue.  The lack of perspective is also very evident. Ananda Commaraswamy in his erudite work “Mediaeval Sinhalese Art” says that there are no drawings on Sinhalese paper, which was very coarse and rough.  The only drawings and manuscripts which have been preserved, are on Dutch, and late, English paper. Coomaraswamy mentions that he was acquainted with only two paper manuscripts, one written on 158 leaves of Dutch paper and containing a selection of discourses of the Buddha and said to have been used by King Narendra Singha as a prayer book, another, on 150 leaves, written in 1811 by Iruyagama Dharmadassi and affording and interesting side-light into Kandyan court life.Both these books are illustrated, the painting being typical examples of the Kandyan style of the 18th century.

In John Davy’s “An Account of Ceylon” there are several illustrations by an unnamed native artist.  Similarly, Lt. Col. James Campbell’s “Excursions, Adventures and Field Sports in Ceylon” (1843) has ten hand coloured illustrations also by a native artist.  Edward Upham’s “History and Doctrine of Buddhism”   (1829) is illustrated with 43 lithographic plates from unsigned Sinhalese drawings, the originals of which are in Royal Asiatic Society’s Library in London.

These drawings, though in traditional style and colouring, have an exceptional delicacy especially in the illustrations of the Jataka stories.

I come now to two exceptional artists who lived in Ceylon.  Hippolyte Silvaf was a French mestico from Pondicherry.  As appears from his advertisement in the Gazette of September 1842, he was giving drawings lessons in the Pettah and James de Alvis in his memoirs, speaks of his school flourishing in 1838.  From original letters in the Royal Commonwealth Society Library to Governor Wilmot Horton during 1838-1842 it appears to have been Silvaf’s intention to publish a “Collection of original drawings of the costumes in the island of Ceylon”.

3a-A headman by Sylvaf a headman by Sylvaf 3c- Sylvaf- A Sinhala ladya Sinhalese lady by Sylvaf

However, this attempt proved abortive as he remarks, “Seeing the little, encouragement the inhabitants of this place give to any undertaking of this kind”.   Nevertheless, he produced a remarkably accurate and colourful series in water colour of Ceylon types and costumes, eleven of which were originals, are in the Royal Commonwealth Society Library.

In Addition, there is a presentation copy of James Steuart’s “Pearl Fisheries of Ceylon” (1837) which has water colour illustrations by Silvaf.  Numerous engravings from original drawings by him are presented in Ferguson’s “Souvenirs of Ceylon” (1868), while he also did some portraiture in oils.

In 1951, Hilda Obeyesekere-Pieris, published “Ceylon: the Near Past”.   This contains 45 plates of J L K Van Dort’s sketches all executed with the dexterity and freedom of a Rowlandson.  Van Dort was born in 1831, his farther being a decendant of one of the Hollanders in the service of the Netherlands East India company, who had elected to remain in Ceylon after 1796, when most of its employees had left for Batavia.

Van Dort’s adeptness with pen and pencil enabled him to leave us a vivid “on the spot” recording of contemporary life.  His most successful approach to portraiture is the series of the law court characters, which he drew for Ferguson’s “Souvenirs”, where his irrepressible humour has resulted in more than mere charicature.  His consummate skill is further expressed in a delightful drawing entitled “Dancing the Caffrinha” in John Capper’s “Old Ceylon” (1877).

In addition, Capper’s “Souvenir” of the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit in 1870 was partly illustrated by Van Dort and these were chromolithographed.

The Colombo Museum possess a bound volume of “Costumes of the Natives of Ceylon” which shows an exceptional richness of colouring.  To the “London Graphic” he supplied illustrated material likely to interest English readers.   In the Royal institute in Leiden are forty nine water colours which are “Reminiscences of the Dutch Occupation of Ceylon” painted by Van Dort in 1888-89, at the request of the Consul for the Netherlands in Colombo.

Andrew Nicholl, R. H. A., is the only major artist who is on public view today.   His appointment was made in London and Nicholl arrived in Ceylon in 1846, as Drawing Master to the Colombo Academy.  An Irishman, Nicholl is now accepted as a water colourist of the highest quality.  An exhibition at Spink & Son (London) in 1981 of a large collection of his natural history drawings of Ceylon was an outstanding success.  His sketches of an Elephant Kraal, the Maligawa Temple, the Great Temple of Dambool etc, were etched for the “Illustrated London News.”  A large number of illustrations in Tennet’s “Ceylon” and also his “Natural History of Ceylon” are wood engravings from original sketches by Nicholl.

In 1848, he accompanied Emerson Tennent, the Colonial Secretary, on a five week tour, during which he sketched the archaeological remains in the interior of Ceylon.  This sketch-book (now in the possession of a private collector) shows detailed pencil drawings of the architectural and sculptural high lights of antique ruins and forms the basis of the twenty five large (approximately 20X30 inches each) bright, superbly executed water colours of the ruined cities and other Ceylon scenery, which are on permanent exhibition in the Colombo Museum.


Filed under cultural transmission, heritage, historical interpretation, life stories, sri lankan society, world affairs

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