Vale Rajpal De Silva: Doctor, Historian, Art Collector and A Treasure House for Ceyloniana

Srilal Fernando … in The Ceylankan, November 2019

I write this as a personal appreciation of a dear friend Dr R.K. (Rajpal) de Silva. I shall leave it to others more qualified than me to write about his contribution  to recording the history of paintings in Sri Lanka mainly during the Colonial period.  His life at the Royal College, Colombo and his lifelong association with his schoolmates are aspects that I only know of in passing.  He has written about his life as a medical student and as a doctor which makes interesting reading.

Pix by  Athula Devapriya

When Mano rang to say that Rajpal passed away that day, I was full of grief. I had had a telephone conversation with him a few days before.   Though infirm, he was at that time full of good cheer.  It confirms the adage that “death comes like a thief in the night”.

I have tried here to distil into a few words how I have been enriched by my close association with Rajpal over the last 20 years. Before meeting him, my appreciation of a painting was of a pretty picture with some attention to form, light and dark, and technical aspects.  Rajpal’s vision was that the painting should talk to you and convey a depth of meaning which comes from a deeper insight into the artists mind.  A painting has its own story to relate and delving into its history allowed a greater appreciation of it.  I am forever grateful to Rajpal for this.

I first met him when he visited Melbourne to talk to the Ceylon Society of Australia.  Savitri and I invited him to stay at our place.  Over the years he would visit us often and stay for about a week.  He would without fail visit his many friends during the day.  After dinner we would talk well into the night on various topics.  He had an encyclopaedia-like knowledge on Colonial Ceylonese art and introduced me to some of his special interests such as the Irish artist, Andrew Nicholl on whom he later published a booklet with support from the British Council, the British Museum and Jardine Fleming.  Other artists such as J L K Van Dort, Hippolyte Silvaf, Constance Gordon-Cumming, Samuel Danielle, Edward Lear, Frances de la Poer, John Deschamps ,and Henry Salt were names that over time became familiar under his guidance.

He knew their life stories as well as who owned the paintings and sometimes the circumstances as to how they changed hands.  His part in the recovery of a painting stolen from the President’s house in Colombo and sold in London is well known.

He also would talk of the various artists and personalities that I had only heard about, but never met.  Ivan Peries, Geoffrey and Bevis Bawa, Christopher Ondaatje are names that come to mind.

It was not only art that he had an interest in. Not only Savitri and I, but our daughter with her interest in art and our son with an interest in history, looked forward to his visits.

My mother who was living with us at the time was one to find some connection as most Sri Lankans do.  When Rajpal found that my mother and her sister had both married men from Moratuwa, he recounted when his father was the District Medical Officer, Moratuwa.  He recalled that his father would ride his horse every morning and one day the horse got spooked while on the Lunawa Bridge and his father had a fall.  They rented a house called ‘Riviera’ which had stables and a lawn in front with a circular driveway around which Rajpal would ride his bicycle.  ‘Riviera’ was the horse belonging to my aunt and uncle.  After returning to Sri Lanka, I introduced him to my cousin who now occupied Riviera and Rajpal spent a morning visiting a place where he had many pleasant memories.

By the time I met Rajpal, he had published Early Prints of Ceylon (1985) and Illustrated views of Dutch Ceylon with Mieke Beumer in 1988,  These two books remain classics for their attention to detail, painstaking research and wonderful illustrations.


Other books followed:

  • 19th Century Newspaper engravings of Ceylon 
  • Sri Lanka in 1998 , and
  • Maps and Plans of Dutch Ceylon 2002.
  • Revision of WA Nelson’s book of The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka 2004.
  • Poetical Sketches of the Interior of the island of Ceylon, Benjamin Bailey in 2011.

He also produced a booklet about his mother, Maisie de Silva –.an accomplished artist. He edited a number of books for the National Trust to some of which I was honoured to contribute in a small way. He also wrote to a number of magazines and periodicals and his last publication was about his experiences in the medical field as a doctor in Sri Lanka and London.

A few years ago we stayed a few days with Rajpal and Mano in London.  In addition to enjoying his collection of books and paintings, we were treated to his culinary skills, Peking duck wrapped in pancake with Hoisin sauce was his speciality. He enjoyed his caramel pudding almost daily.

Over the years we met many times in Colombo where he was an entertaining and generous host.  He had no deep religious affiliations and he had no beliefs of the afterlife and hence I have no idea of how to make a wish for him.  I have to draw on my Christian belief that he will find eternal peace.

In his dedication of his book, he wrote “to a fellow traveller”.  I thank him for the part of the journey that has enriched me so much.





Leave a comment

Filed under architects & architecture, cultural transmission, education, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, meditations, paintings, photography, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, transport and communications, travelogue, unusual people, world events & processes

Leave a Reply