Running in the family... with brush and palette

by Deloraine Brohier
Opening the window to a world that no longer exists and a world that — in a way — little is known of or remembered, has been a fascinating experience to a small group who are working towards promoting an exhibition to be held from 3rd to 6th July 2003 at the Lionel Wendt , Upper Gallery — The Harold Pieris Galleries. This will be an unique display of the works of art over the years, from about the early 19th century to the present day, of the Burgher community. "The Burgher Connection" will feature together the work of over 30 painters — in oil and water colour, drawings with wash, in pencil and ink, sketches, caricatures and cartoons, landscapes or portraits.

From the descendants of Europeans who came out under the Dutch East India Co. (VOC) were 900 families who elected to stay on in the Island when the British took over in 1796. These people were identified by the generic term, ‘Burghers’. Some kept their distinct (Burgher) lineage through the 19th and into the 20th centuries, while others integrated into the fabric of society. However, delving into these cases nevertheless it has been found that at least grand parents, if not parents are of Burgher origin. This Exhibition therefore proposes to cover a wider spectrum of participants with Burgher connections.

To begin with there are the earliest records of that doyen of them all — John Leonhard Kalenberg Van Dort of the 19th century and those of his daughter Grace and son Ernest.

Down the line of family through the marriage of J.L.K. Van Dort to Cornelia Henrietta Spittel we find in Christine Wilson-Spittel the writer and author of many novels, that she has recently found great joy and inspiration in painting. The Beling family —the senior most being W.W. and his sons and grandsons and great grandsons into the present generation is another family we take up. Of the de Niese family, there was James, the father of George, his son Terry and daughter Imsy, another family with a link to the art. Artistic genes were passed on through the members of this family to others like Michael de Niese and Tony Hopman.

The exhibition will also display some of Aubrey Collettes work which in cartoon reflected the political scene of the country in an era prior and post of Independence, Mark Gerryn, Douglas Raffell, Margie de Kretser, Maud Loos-Jansz, Jan Cooke, Barbara Sansoni, George Bevan, Michael Anthonisz, Christine Wilson, Melville Assure, Michael Harridge, Royden Gibbs, Sybil Keyt. The well known and successful George Keyt undoubtedly, will be featured at the exhibition, amongst these many others.

To the small group who have dedicated their time and energy in the effort of this exhibition it has been an exhilarating experience. This involved visits to the National Museum where much of J.L.K. Van Dort’s work can be found, calls on the progeny of families to whom canvasses and framed pictures have been left, a gallery or two where among a mass of antiques and art objects are hidden a painting or two; through the modern website contact has also been made with relatives who have moved to lands far away. All this research has taken months of preparation, to identify the whereabouts of the priceless legacies in art of members of the Burgher community. In this search has been established that through the years families have bequeathed tradition and influences from parent to child who have given their interpretation and expression in their paintings.

J.L.K. Van Dort had an instinctive artistry and what he drew he did for the sheer joy of drawing. The young Van Dort was schooled at the Colombo Academy where his head-teacher described him as a prodigy and a genius. ‘Art’ was not a part of a school curriculum in that period of our educational system, so he had no formal training in drawing and painting. JLK was essentially an illustrator, thinking in terms of black and white, with pen and pencil as his chosen instruments. He rarely used oil and it is said that water colour had really little attraction for him. Sometimes he reinforced his drawings with wash. Wherever he went on journeys his note book and sketch book always accompanied him. As he sat in a railway carriage he would with a few swift lines and smudges unerringly record what he saw and what specially attracted his eye, catching the passing incident or scene. Sometimes along a rustic road he would perch himself on a rock or embankment and interpret the atmosphere. Rural life and ritual sports, palanquins and bullock carts, a rickshaw wallah or horse drawn carriage — were featured in many of his sketches. The social scene on Galle Face Green carried in caricature personages of the day, legal luminaries and senior colonial officers, ladies of society in their crinolines and bonettes.

A collection vast and varied rests in the National Museum of Colombo of the people of mid 19th century Ceylon. His love of satore led him to contribute to local comic papers such as ‘Muniand’ and ‘Young’ Ceylon’. He contributed to several journals, magazines and newspapers. In 1868 he sketched a series of law-court characters for A.M. Ferguson’s ‘Souvenirs of The visit of the Duke of Edinburgh to Ceylon’, a pictorial record for us of a later generation, for his impressions of the social life of Ceylon at the time are a valuable commentary and way of life. JLK loved the country he was destined to live in and his work is a legacy for us to visualize what was and to keep record. J. B. Siebel a class mate of JLK later wrote how, ‘his friend had great delight to draw pictures of horses and also of soldiers’. This is seen in a painting of water colours which will be on display at the forthcoming Exhibition of the Dawson Monument Kadugannawa, titled ‘A halt of the Ceylon Rifles on route to Kandy’.

J.L.K. Van Dort was born on the 28 July 1831 and married, as mentioned, Cornelia Henrietta Spittel. They had two children, Grace, born 30 September 1861 and Ernest Francis 23 January 1865, both of whom inherited their father’s talent — though they had not his prodigious output. Grace was an outgoing person. She was a leading member of the Ceylon Society of Arts and was the Secretary of the Society, reputed to have had much to do to foster the arts in the Island. She painted both in oils and water colours.

On display at the forthcoming exhibition, will be an oil painting of a flamboyant tree in bloom. It is said that Grace would often betake herself to the Beira Lake to capture scenes that caught her eye there. Dawn breaking or a sunset sky reflected in its waters she drew, as she sat along its grassy verge.

An interesting account is reported of Grace Van Dort’s connection with the British Royalty in the DBU Journal No. 41 of the year 1951.

‘The plans now being made for the reception of Royalty next year recalls to memory a circumstance in connection with the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York (who later became King George V. and Queen Mary in 1901’.

A few months prior to their arrival in Ceylon, Miss Grace Van Dort, well known to us of the Dutch Burgher Union, was surprised by a visit from a prominent railway official, who told her that special railway carriages were being made for the use of the royal visitors, the object of his visit having been to ask her to paint on the panels inside the saloons some arrangements of Ceylon flowers for the boudoir of the Duchess, and fruits for the smoking room of the Duke. They would provide a special railway carriage for her transport to the railway construction yard. After the paintings were completed she placed in the boudoir of the Duchess a painting she had done for her uncle, the late Dr. W. G. Van Dort, on the understanding that it would be returned to her after the departure of the Royal visitors.

At about the time of their arrival Miss Van Dort went to Kandy on a visit to some friends. While there she received a letter from Sir Arthur Bigge, private secretary to the Duke, requesting her to come to the King’s Pavilion, to meet the Duchess, as Her Royal Highness would be pleased to accept the paintings of Ceylon flowers; and appointing the date and hour of reception where the presentation was to take Christine Wilson-Spittel is the grand niece of J.L.K. Van Dort. Christine grew up with a knowledge of the Arts through her father the well known surgeon and writer Dr. R. L. Spittel. Christine took lessons under Ivor Baptiste and traces of this influence can be seen in some of her work — particularly the landscapes. Her experiences and love for rural Sri Lanka is evident in the landscape scenes she paints.

The Belings and the generations of their family who followed, was another interesting study.

William Wright Beling, the senior was born on 31 December 1867, and was a landscape painter of the classical school. His passion was hunting of hare and wild boar and with his shot gun he would cut his way through scrub jungle with a pack of hounds at his heel. His pictures are all water colours, scenes of a lush bamboo clump on the edge of a river bank or the wide beaches of Hambantota, a lone fisherman’s hut or a palmyrah tree stark against a cloudless azure sky. A few of his water colour paintings will be on display. These paintings all framed, found their way to his eldest son, Will Beling of the Customs Department and through his wife Dorothy Vanderstraaten have been passed down to her nieces.

Down the line then came Charles Lorenz and William James Geoffrey Beling both of who belonged to the 43rd Group. Their contemporaries were George Keyt, Aubrey Collette, George Classen, Richard Gabriel and others. It was Lionel Wendt the photographer who held the Group together and was its inspiring spirit.

Charles Lorenz Beling was by profession an interior decorator cum architect and was a pioneer in the manufacture of paint using local raw material. He was an expert in this field and formed a Company by the name of Beling Ltd. which was housed in the Regal Flats, where he lived. In the halls of the DBU hangs a painting of the landing of Admiral Joris van Spilbergen near Batticaloa, in May 1602 and which marked the arrival of the Dutch on the shores of this Island. The painting was commissioned by the Royal Netherlands Navy and Mercantile Marine and was presented to the Union at a dance on 30 August 1944 to celebrate the Birthday Anniversary of the reigning queen of Holland, at the time - Queen Wilhelmina. Lt. Cdr. S. Dobbenga spoke feelingly on the occasion, of the Dutch Burgher Union who extended hospitality to the Dutch Forces in the eastern campaign of the second World War. The painting was presented to the President of the Union at the time, Mr. H. Kenneth de Kretser, by Admiral Helfrich. In the records of the Dutch Burgher Union Journal is found the following account:-

The painting is not a copy, but Mr C. L. Beling’s own idea, based on Spilbergen’s Diary and other documents. The painting is worthy of its subject. Spilbergen is in the forefront of the picture, erect and self-possessed. He carries his hat in his hand, and faces the Kandyan king’s representative. Behind the Admiral comes a man carrying the Netherland Flag, and behind him a man carrying presents &c. Then come the musicians. The bay, the elephants, and the dissave’s attendants complete the historical scene. Our congratulations.

In November 2002 to mark the historic event and 400 years of relations between Sri Lanka and The Netherlands, a stamp was issued at the Residence of the present Ambassador for the Netherlands. Her Excellency, The President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga issued the first franked First Day Cover of the stamp on this occasion. This large painting will be on display at the Exhibition.

Brother W. J. Geoffrey Beling went to India as a young man and learnt the art of painting and architecture there. On his return he was appointed Inspector of Art in the Education Department rising to be Chief Inspector of Art in due course. It is said of him that he gave great encouragement to students to express and create their own artistic instincts and to veer away from the strict still life interpretations of that time. He left several paintings of his own style which are housed in the Sapumal Foundation. He was not a portrait painter for he loved painting trees and foliage, but he has done a portrait of the photographer Lionel Wendt which hangs in the Foyer of the Theatre Gallery at present. Geoffrey’s eldest son Paul dabbles in numbers and figures in mathematics but his second son David paints as a hobby. David’s son in turn is a painter. When he emigrated to Australia he took with him most of what he had done. It is reported that David’s grandson has also turned his hand to brush and canvas.

Yet another family who followed the run of the creative art of painting are the de Niese family.

James, the father of George who came to be well known is the first of the line of painters in the family. The family first lived in Jaffna and James painted portraits of the Bishops of Jaffna Cathedral.

George de Niese was born in 1884. He taught Art and music in St. John’s College Jaffna. Later he came to Trinity College Kandy during the time of the Principal Frazer and then moved on to St. Joseph’s College and St. Peter’s College in Colombo. He was a contemporary of A.C.G.S. Amarasekera and developed the style of a portrait painter of excellence. An outstanding painting of his is that of his wife which will hang at the Exhibition. He did a mural for Trinity College Kandy which was featured in their 100th Anniversary Bulletin.

George de Niese died in 1954 leaving a son, Terry and a daughter Imsy who also took to painting. Terry, the elder of the two children was a bachelor and lived alone, a moody artist who suffered from asthma and crippling migraine attacks. He lived on the sale of his paintings. He took over from his father, as an Art Master, at St. Peter’s College, Colombo and painted the portraits of several Rectors of the school. Terry was of the Impressionist School of painting. He died in 1983 in a small rented annex at the back of Lion House in Bambalapitiya.

Terry de Niese though a loner became a close friend of his contemporary Ivor Baptiste. Ivor was a student in fact of Terry’s father George and many of Ivor Baptiste’s paintings in oil on canvas can be seen in the homes of Burgher ‘emigre’s who moved on to Australia in the wave of their exodus in the 1950s and 60s.

Imsy, George de Niese’s daughter followed the lead of Terry and also painted some delightful landscapes and portraits. She now lives in England. Her nephews Michael de Niese and Tony Hopman are also painters.

Visiting the families connected with art and painting has unearthed fascinating histories that link up with each other. It has also brought out in fact, that genes and instinctive traits do emerge in later generations. So with brush and canvas we can go in the run of family, to trace works that will be featured in ‘The Burgher Connection’.