Srilal Fernando from Melbourne
Richard Don Gabriel died peacefully surrounded by his extended family on his 92nd birthday. He was the last of the original group of Artists called the 43 Group. Thus ended an era of profound importance in the Art of Sri Lanka. This article is neither an exhaustive exercise about the Group or of Richard Gabriel’s Art. I shall leave this to more capable and knowledgeable writers. Mine is a personal perspective.
My earliest memories of Richard was when he was the Art Teacher at St Joseph’s College, Colombo. A brand new art studio was built by the Beira Lake and this is where the students attended their art classes. The art lesson was lost on us little kids then. However, Richard could with a few strokes of his brush bring an animal to life. Many years passed and it was only after migrating to Australia that I developed an interest in collecting and studying Sri Lankan Art. Visits to Sri Lanka would be incomplete without a visit to the Gabriel residence in Pannipitiya. We would be served with a glass of Thambili wine. As with limited means my purchases were restricted to woodcuts.
After the death of his wife, Richard moved to Melbourne, Australia. His daughter Rene and son-in-law Hiran, both architects, built a little studio for him in an annex of their house. Richard continued his painting and the occasional wood sculpture there. His residence was not very far from my consulting rooms. This gave me the time to visit him onceevery two or three months. This continued for over ten years. His calm temperament, peaceful manner, and his knowledge about painting and the 43 Group made my visits knowledgeable and enjoyable.
Richard had the highest regard for Ivan Peries and Harry Pieris. Ivan had recognised his talent and introduced him to Harry Pieris. Harry took him in as a pupil but waived the fees as Richard could not afford them.
Another story he related was that Fr. Peter Pillai, the rector at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo wanted Richard to teach art at St. Joseph’s. However, as…St Joseph’s was a fee assisted school, the teachers had to have the Government requirements to be on the payroll. Richard did not have a pass in Sinhala which was one of the requirements. Fr. Pillai paid his wage from his own funds till Richard had the necessary requirements to be on the school payroll.
Many years later, I was given a block of wood by one of my sculptor friends. I gave this to Richard as I was very unlikely to have a go at sculpting. Richard kept it for a few years and I did not ask him about it knowing that an artist would have to do it in his own time. One day he said that he would sculpt the head of Fr. Peter Pillai. He sawed off part of the block to use as a platform for the head. He shaped this platform in the form of a book thus alluding to the scholarly aspect of Fr. Peter Pillai. The likeness of the finished product was remarkable. I was lucky to see the head at every stage and Hiran has a photograph of Richard working on it. The head was sent to Fr. Kuriacose and I believe it is at Aquinas College, Colombo.
When the book on Justin Daraniyagala’s paintings came out, Richard and I went through some of the paintings he was able to interpret the meaning and significance of some of the paintings. He remarked that Justin was widely read and most of his paintings had various symbols which were apparent only to the discerning eye. Justin had done a painting of Anais Nin, a famous feminist author of the time. It is said that she was an artist model for Picasso and Matisse. The painting was in bad condition with the canvas at the bottom virtually in tatters. Richard was asked to restore it. He repaired the canvas and matched the colour to the original colour of the paining.
I, in a fit of vanity, asked whether Richard would paint me. He readily agreed. He painted me in a sarong and shirt holding the reins of a magnificent, ferocious-looking horse, almost being dragged away by the horse. Not knowing the symbolism in the painting, Iexchanged it for another painting of two women with pots on their heads on their way to and from the well. Only later that I realised that the fierce horse was the powerful subconscious forces at play and me the psychiatrist trying to control them, but being almost blown away in the process.
His simplicity was legendary. He once was invited to a function at the Indian High Commission and the invitation stated “Dress – Lounge”. He responded saying that he had no suit or even a tie. Some years later he was invited again, but it was written “Dress – Casual”. He still did not attend. It was not his scene.
Once the British High Commission sent him a visitor, a distinguished looking tall gentleman who purchased his paintings. He later found out that it was the cricketer Ted Dexter known as Lord Ted. He was sorry he did not recognise this former MCC cricket captain and would have loved to talk cricket with him.
Though the last years of his life were spent in Australia, his painting were all based on memories of Sri Lanka. He painted rural scenes such as women bathing by a stream, beach scenes, and of ordinary country folk such as fisherman and a farmer tending his animals. He related so much to this time of his childhood. When I requested a painting to adorn the cover of the souvenir for the Sri Lankan doctors in Australia get together, he provided a painting of a Vedarala examining a patient in the veranda of his house.
He lived a simple life with no opulence. He died peaceful and content. When I visited him two days before he died to say goodbye he was very lucid in his mind. He had accepted death and waited for the right moment for it to happen. What a great man, what a great life.
All the paintings reproduced here belong to Dr. Srilal Fernando