George Keyt Paintings: Ian Goonetileke’s Fascinating Collection

Nan, in The Island, 8 October 2023, where the title runs thus “HAI Goonetileke’s Keyts Collection”

 Ian Goonetileke decided to bequeath his extensive collection of Keyt’s art – sketches, paintings, both large and small sized, plus work of other artists such as George Claessen and Ivan Peiris, to the Peradeniya University as early as 1994. This collection named the Ian and Roslin Gooonetileke Painting Collection was formally handed over to the university at a ceremony in 2004.

I was present at the occasion, invited by Ian. In the speeches made, it was said a special room would be built and dedicated to housing the invaluable collection. The room is still to be set aside and all the art work lie in a room in the basement as they did for almost two decades.

With the very generous permission of the Chief Librarian Mr R Maheswaran, obtained before our visit to the Main Library of the University of Peradeniya, my son and I were escorted by two library personnel to see this priceless collection of art. Some were stacked on a table, some left standing and the smaller paintings were mounted vertically right up to the roof.

They seemed to be in good condition, the room being air-conditioned. Till very recently they were in the guardianship of the HAI Goonetileke Trust; now they are the possession of the Peradeniya University Art Gallery and Museum Trust and in the custody of the Main Library. The better care of the art collection, its preservation and exhibition seem to be getting a move on, initiated by the Chief Librarian and his staff. One idea mooted for their storage and exhibition is to remove the bound volumes from the fifth floor of the Library and have the paintings properly mounted and open for viewing in that large room.

Ian Goonetileke – unique gentleman

When he was Chief Librarian of the University of Peradeniya, he was revered and even somewhat feared by his young assistants. We Sri Lankan librarians respected him highly and thought him one of a kind. He was an excellent bibliographer and known worldwide for this expertise and the six volume A Bibliography of Ceylon (Sri Lanka): A Systematic Guide to the Literature on the Land, People, History and Culture. Compiled in the pre-computer era, each entry was painstakingly collected through extensive research of the literature, and set down by hand by Ian. It was then typed and published and very widely made use of.

He joined the University of Peradeniya as a young man of 27 in 1953 working under Sir Ivor Jennings, VC, and Librarian S C Blok (1952-‘65). He succeeded Mr K D Somadasa – third librarian who migrated to the UK and was employed by the British Library. Ian served as Chief Librarian of the main university library until he prematurely retired in 1979. He counts many unique achievements which brought fame not only to himself but the library profession and the University of Peradeniya, besides the country.

· He was the only Asian student to have won the Jon Duncan Cowley prize for the Postgraduate Diploma in Librarianship in the University of London (1956) since its inauguration in 1919.

· Only Sri Lankan librarian to serve on the Advisory Council of the UNESCO Library and Archives: 1977-78

· First Sri Lankan to obtain Fellowship by thesis from the Library Association of UK and Ireland (LA) – 1996

· Only Sri Lankan to be invited to be a supervisor and examiner of theses at the University of London by the LA

“Ian played many roles simultaneously and with equal felicity and dedication when he was at Peradeniya as professional librarian – the Ceylon Room was his initiative.” He was an avid reader, dedicated scholar and researcher, and authored 13 books and numerous articles and reviews. He was an art lover and collector; even a trade unionist and sharp critic. One factor I got to know was that he brooked no nonsense and could not tolerate fools.

When Sir Ivor Jennings left Peradeniya and the country, he handed over most of his books and a tied up bundle of typed sheets to the librarian. Ian Goonetileke was assistant librarian then, but as he said, his curiosity overcame his imposed scruples and he untied the bundle of papers and read them.

It was Sir Ivor’s reminiscences of the very many trips made to Peradeniya from Colombo during the entire construction of the university campus on the site selected by him. He had described landmarks he passed on the way plus snippets of his life. Thus came to be published The Road to Peradeniya: an autobiography, edited by H A I Goonetileke and published by Lake House investments in 2005 with 276 pages and many illustrations.

The ‘ordinary man’

I wish to write about retired Ian living a quiet life in a cottage built in Oruwela near the homes of a couple of wife Roslin’s relatives. He was no ordinary man though my subtitle classifies him thus. He was always out of the ordinary and till the end maintained his target of perfection in even how we spoke. He was mentally very alive and cognizant of Sri Lankan and world matters, more so on information science and the art world.

My husband came in contact with Ian through the Keyt Foundation and when he said his wife was a librarian a gracious invitation was extended to visit Roslin and him, which we did. The initial visit developed to a firm friendship and our many Saturday visits to Oruwela and a couple of visits to lunch by Ian and Roslin in our home in Colombo. Ian had a Volkswagen maneuvered with Roslin’s niece as side driver.

As I mentioned their home was more a cottage than a house with chintz window curtains fastened with ribbon bows. Every inch of the walls of almost the entire home were covered with paintings of mostly George Keyt, received as gifts but most bought during Ian’s time in Peradeniya.

The incident which I remember so clearly and retail to others is a sure pointer to who Ian was. On a visit to Oruwela, I mentioned an article in the Sunday Island. Ian said he had not seen it as he gets no papers and added that he could not afford that expense. I was duly shocked. I knew he left Peradeniya University on a sudden decision, after a conflict – the rumoured reason. Thus he lost pension rights or a lump sum due to him for his long service as librarian. I would not be surprised if it was Ian who left disdaining any payment on retirement.

The focal point of this tale is the conversation that resulted from his revelation. I remember saying “But Ian, you can sell one small painting from this vast collection and you will have plenty money in hand.”

Ian looked at me with utter and nakedly obvious disdain. Maybe disgust too. He said: “But my entire collection of art is donated to the University of Peradeniya. All these (sweepingly pointing to the walls covered with paintings and sketches) are now the property of the University.”

I felt a worm. Such the surprise that was obviously felt by Ian that a person he knew and admitted as a friend could suggest such an infringement of trust and integrity. The extent of his honesty is unbelievable now when corruption, avarice, cutting corners and cheating seem to be the norm.  




Filed under accountability, art & allure bewitching, cultural transmission, education, heritage, historical interpretation, life stories, literary achievements, patriotism, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, unusual people

3 responses to “George Keyt Paintings: Ian Goonetileke’s Fascinating Collection

  1. Avishka Senewiratne

    Ian Goonetilleke was an unsung hero in the history of our country. His magnum opus, the five volumes of Bibliography of Ceylon speaks a lot of his dexterity. The writer must be lauded for bringing back some memory of the late bibliographer/librarian and scholar.

  2. Sachi Sri Kantha

    As a bibliophile, I express my support to Avishka’s appreciation of Ian Goonetileke’s stupendous effort in compiling his five volume ‘Bibliography of Ceylon’ work. My tribute to him was posted ten years ago in the following link.

  3. Dash

    Grandmother. A lot of these were sketches and ‘unfinished’ work George Keyt gave Ian Goonetileke. My grandfather had what George Keyt himself called his best collection. He would spend weeks with my grandfather, Sylvester de Soysa, especially at the Mudukatuwa estate. My grandfather appreciated his work long before most and commissioned over 30 large paintings as well as a sketch book of the Kama-Sutra. After my grandfather’s untimely death and the take-over of our estates (which also caused the death of my grandfather’s brother), my grandmother over the years sold many of them and we are left with 8.

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