Nilantha Perera Palihawadana
Beginnings and Family: Payagala Baduge Richard Mausuetus Don Gabriel was born on February 19, 1924, to Payagala Baduge Don Gabriel and Cyriline de Costa. He was the youngest of a family of three boys. His eldest brother was Edmund Don Gabriel, who became an accountant and was the bursar of Aquinas College. He also served as the secretary and treasurer of the Sapumal Foundation. The brother just senior to him was Edward Don Gabriel, who later became a businessman. Richard also had four half-sisters from his father’s first marriage.
Richard was educated at St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya. His father died when he was two months old. He was brought up by his mother and her younger brother Marshall de Costa. His mother planted his religious faith from a very young age, which he held till his last day. Richard was a talented child who showcased his artistry from a very early stage in life. His much-loved uncle, Marshal used to buy him drawing books and English craft sets which he thoroughly enjoyed.
His first official picture was of his late father. This was a monochrome watercolour painting done by looking at his parent’s wedding picture. Through his brother Edmund, a close friend of Lester James Peries, the father of Sri Lankan Cinema, Richard came to know the renowned painter Ivan Peries. Ivan, who was highly impressed by seeing the work of this 17-year-old, became a mentor to young Richard, nurturing and nourishing his knowledge and talent. Richard constantly visited the Peries House “Sihagiri”, at Galle Road, Dehiwala, located very close to his own house.
Gabriel’s work was first exhibited in ‘The Ceylon War Effort Picture Exhibition’ in 1943, where he won four prizes. That same year the ‘43 Group was formed, and Richard Gabriel was engaged as its youngest founding member. At the age of 20 he accepted an appointment as an art teacher at St. Joseph’s College Colombo, which was in exile during WWII. This was during the tenure of Fr. Peter Pillai OMI. Richard formed the “Josephian Art Circle” and organised several art exhibitions in the 1950s. He was instrumental in stimulating the creativity of young Josephians.
Richard studied and later taught Art at Cora Abraham’s famous ‘Melbourne Art Classes’ (presently Cora Abraham Art Classes) located at Melbourne Avenue, Bambalapitiya. This is where he met the young and vibrant Sita Rita Vesamitta Kulasekera, an artist and an art teacher herself. Richard and Sita married on December 15, 1951 at St. Mary’s Church Dehiwala.
Sita was the daughter of Abeyratna Adikarige Greames Edward Kulasekera, a landed Proprietor and Sophia Rupasinghe Gunawardena. Her maternal uncles were Phillip and Robert Gunawardena, famous Marxist politicians and founders of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. Later, Richard’s bond with the Peries family were further reinforced when Sumitra Peries (nee Gunawardena) married Lester James Peries, since Sita and Sumitra were first cousins sharing a common lineage from ‘Boralugoda Walawwa’.
Richard and Sita had a son and a daughter, Angelo and Rene. Angelo married Chrishanthi Jayakody and Rene married Hiran Leitan, all residing in Melbourne.
Life as an Artist
Through Ivan Peries, young Richard later came to know Harry Pieris, another great Sri Lankan artist. He visited Harry weekly at his residence at Barnes Place (now the Sapumal Foundation), to study under him. Harry was a true mentor to Richard. Not only did he help to develop his artistic ability, but also supported his personal wellbeing.
In 1952 he was awarded a British Council scholarship to study at the Chelsea School of Art in London. He also travelled to Paris and participated in the ’43 Group’s exhibitions. After he returned from England, the family resided at the St. Joseph’s model farmhouses in Waragoda. Later he moved to Pannipitiya.
Gabriel was well renowned as an artist who captured the local sceneries and characters, which was presumably influenced by Ivan Peries and other members of the ’43 Group. The main objective of this movement was to decolonise and create a new character for Sri Lankan art to create a modern identity for Sri Lanka as a new nation in the contemporary world. This effort is showcased in each artist’s works. Richard painted simple rural life such as men and women, farmers, bullock carts, fishermen, labourers and sceneries from village life. Apart from these exotic works, he had a greater inclination to compose religious iconography which were strongly influenced by local elements.
A strong Catholic at heart, he was distinguished for his religious paintings and sculptures at churches and chapels around the island. Fr. Aloysius Pieris SJ, a Theologian and Indologist and founder of Tulana Research Centre, remembers Richard to be a strong Catholic with a traditional and orthodox perceptions.
One of his most notable works can be seen at St. Therese’s Church Thimbirigasyaya, which was commissioned by Fr. Hyacinth Frendo SDB. One significant feature of this mural is the angels playing Oriental instruments such as Hēvisi, Horanäwas and Kombuwas and some angels dancing with sticks ‘Lī-Keli’. He also made the ‘Stations of the Cross’ out of Plaster of Paris, which his daughter Rene fondly remembers him working on. The murals at Christ the King, Pannipitiya, his parish, beautifully decorate the altar of the chapel to this date. Other prominent works include the eight foot ‘The Risen Christ’ sandalwood carving at “Nirmala”, the Jesuit house in Bambalapitiya, ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘Transfiguration of Christ’ at the St. Aloysius’ Seminary in Borella, the eight foot tall tamarind statue of the Madonna and the Crucifix at the National Seminary Ampitiya.
Richard had the habit of painting a picture of Christ during Easter; it was his homage to the risen Lord. Another significant piece of work done by Gabriel was the book of etchings named “The Cross” which featured 14 Stations of the Cross in Black and White, and the fifteenth was of the Risen Lord, the only coloured print. Only a limited 33 copies were made, each hand-bound by the artist in scarlet red leather embossed with gold leaf.
In his paintings of ‘The Holy Family’, Richard infused Sri Lankan elements and symbols. Mother Mary dressed in a saree, St. Joseph in a sarong and shirt and Infant Jesus are seen seated on rattan woven chairs, as humble Sri Lankan rural folk. Only three known paintings of the Holy family were painted. The first, drawn for Prof. Ashley Halpe and Bridget Halpe in Kandy in 1982, another done in 2014 for Ralex and Premani Leitan in Melbourne and one more which was donated to St. Joseph’s College.
As his daughter Rene mentions; “Thatha always said that it was not he who painted the pictures, but rather the divine intervention that did it using him as a medium”.
“Gabriel’s work was always connected with ‘tranquil landscape in which people blended with the rich environment’. His work depicted quality of life which was gracious and was deeply dedicated to tradition. Strong, brisk drawing with energetic colour were key trademarks of his work. Geoff Beling once stated that Gabriel was ‘A consistent worker, always drawing and painting, maintaining his own vision and expression in terms of life of Ceylon” (Weeraratne, 1993; 97).
In 1991 Richard Gabriel was awarded the Josephian Award of Excellence for his contribution to the Arts. This was a special program to recognise past Josephians for outstanding achievements in their respective fields and for services rendered to the College. In 1994 Richard held his first exhibition in Melbourne during a six month holiday. His work was acclaimed & applauded by many.
Later Works and Final Years
Upon his wife’s death, Richard moved to Australia in 2002. He lived with his daughter and Son-in-law Rene and Hiran Leitan, at their home, where he continued painting in the basement gallery. An extensive collection of artworks was completed whilst in Melbourne. As his family and close friends fondly remembers, Richard always gave unique birthday, anniversary, and Christmas cards, where his artworks were printed.
Dr. Srilal Fernando, a Melbourne based Psychiatrist and art aficionado, was a close friend of Richard Gabriel. He fondly remembers his memories with Richard and their long conversions on various subjects. One such memory is when Dr. Srilal Fernando gave Richard a block of wood for a carving. Although a carving of a hand was preferred by Dr. Srilal, Richard kept the block for a few years with him. Later, Richard decided to sculpt the bust of Fr. Peter Pillai out of this block. Part of the block was chopped off and was used as a base for the head in the shape of a book. As Dr. Srilal states, “Richard captured the likeness of Fr. Peter Pillai remarkably”. This was later given to Fr. Thomas Kuriakose S.J., and after his passing, it was given to the Aquinas College, Colombo through the help of an Old Josepjhain, Mr. Ranjith Perera.
His last known piece of work was initiated for his grandson Nuwan. This was the “Sermon on the Mount”, from the Gospel of Matthew, which was partially drawn by charcoal on canvas. Richard had sketched his planned composition on his sketch pad, but unfortunately, he could not bring this to life on canvas as he was taken to hospital due to his deteriorated health. Richard was called to rest on the day of his 92nd birthday, on February 19th, 2016.
After his death, his daughter Rene made a rather surprising discovery of a peculiar sketch on his sketch pad. This was of a feeble Richard Gabriel, painting on canvas with a skull on the desk. As Rene mentions, “Thatha knew that his time has come to an end… and the skull represented death”.
An extraordinary individual yet a humble and gentle soul as people would remember him, Richard Gabriel’s name is echoed through the halls of many galleries, artists, young art enthusiasts and many worshippers at the churches where his art is seen.
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