Reminiscences of Harry Pieris and Ivan Peries

The birth centenary of Harry Pieris occurred four years ago. To mark this occasion a souvenir was published by the Sapumal Foundation sponsored by his niece, Niloufer Pieris, with extracts from a radio talk given by Harry in 1980.

The eighty-eighth birth anniversary of Ivan Peries has also passed. Both died between February and March, 1988. There was a comprehensive publication on his work by Prof. Senaka Bandaranayake and his wife, Manel Fonseka, in 1996.

Ivan lived in England with his wife, Veronica, and their family since the early fifties. He died of a sudden heart attack, an event which was withheld from Harry who was seriously ill at the time. Though conscious, his family and friends realized it would only aggravate his condition. However, Harry too, passed away a few weeks later.

Now that I am eighty-four years of age and though by no means a writer I felt it incumbent on my part to acknowledge my deepest appreciation of the guidance and help I received in countless ways from these two sincere and dedicated artists.

Harry’s and Ivan’s personalities were poles apart. It was their sincerity and deep love for the arts that kept the deep teacher-pupil attachment between us to the end.

Articles by many eminent artists and writers familiar with the ’43 Group and Harry’s Sapumal Foundation have been published.

Harry, coming from a wealthy family, was fortunate that at the early age of nineteen he was able to spend more than a decade in the UK, France, and in Shantiniketan in India. He visited and studied most of the artistic sites in India. The Ajanta frescoes had a lasting influence on his work. He also had a close relationship with the best artists and sculptors of both east and west. He saw the work of these painters and he had seen the dancers and musicians perform. After this exposure to different people and cultures he naturally remained a collected and sober person, possessing enviable talent and ability, and with impeccable taste in all of the arts – even in the culinary arts.

In 1938 he returned to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) at the request of his family to manage the family estates.

Ivan was a complete contrast. He was easily excited and tense, and acted on the spur of the moment. However, he possessed a clean conscience. He had nothing to hide. I remember an occasion when a classmate of his, a priest, visited him upon his return from a government scholarship in the UK. After a few minutes of mutual greetings, Ivan started relating stories of his escapades in the UK and ended by saying: "I have made my confession, now it’s your turn to absolve me!" The priest smiled and blessed him saying, "I haven’t heard many confessions but yours is the best so far!"

On another unforgettable occasion, Ivan had an argument with Fr Peter Pillai OMI. Ivan said something outlandish which provoked Fr Pillai to say, "Ivan, at least respect my qualifications!" Ivan was nonplussed and apologized. "Father, please forgive me, I am sorry," he said. Fr Peter replied: "My forgiveness is always there. May God bless you!"

Ivan and I were given two large stalls to be decorated for the Colombo Plan Exhibition. After two weeks the contractor came to inspect our work to find Ivan and his team missing. Tins of paints and brushes were scattered all over, unattended. Ivan had taken his men for a beer and buriyani feed! Though the work was only half-completed the contractor gave Ivan the agreed amount of 4,000 rupees and terminated his work saying, "If I keep you I will not be able to have any control on my workers!" Two weeks later, Ivan was broke. When a friend asked him what had happened to such a large sum of money, he replied: "Can’t I spend in two weeks what I earned in two weeks?"

These anecdotes of Ivan’s life as a young artist describe his character. Other incidents have been touched upon elsewhere and so there is no need for me to repeat them here.

To connect the lives of Harry, Ivan and mine, I need to say something about my family.

After my father’s death when I was still an infant, an uncle became our sole benefactor. He was my mother’s brother, Marshall de Costa, a government surveyor living in Kotahena. As my mother could not look after me, a baby and my two elder brothers, our uncle took my eldest brother, aged six years at the time, and had him admitted to St Benedict’s College.

I started school when I was seven years and I remember travelling to the Matara convent with the next door children in their buggy cart.

When I was nine I fell seriously ill with double-pneumonia and it took months for me to recover. This eventually led to our family shifting to Dehiwela where our uncle had purchased a house. We left Matara, our birth-place, for good. My two brothers and I were admitted to St Peter’s College as the closest Catholic school to us. It was providential that my elder brother, Edmund, was in the same class as Lester, Ivan’s brother. As both were interested in books they became close friends and visited each otherhomes often, even after they had left school.

Our uncle, who had been looking after our needs, passed away after a short illness in 1938. He was fifty years of age. I had to carry the cross leading the funeral procession. His farewell gift to us was the house a roof above our heads.

From my early days I was fond of drawing and making models of houses and warships with card-board and clay. It was also fascinating for me to watch my mother busy making pillow-lace and doing crochet work. She was happy to see me paint. As I had not seen my father except seated forever in the wedding photo, I thought he had some defect. This imaginary defect I corrected by drawing a portrait of him standing. My brother, Edmund, saw this and said: "As far as I can remember your drawing looks very much like father".

This led to my meeting Ivan in late 1939. He was then a recognized artist and, impressed with my monochrome water-colour portrait, wanted me to see him whenever I was free. This was a captivating opportunity for me to see so many paintings that hung in his house. Ivan asked me whether I liked the pictures and I said they are all nice. I pointed to an unfinished landscape with houses and coconut trees and he showed me another similar one with stormy, dancing clouds. "These are influenced by an artist by the name of El Greco", he said. At that moment it was like Greek to me.

He started to speak about artists, their difficulties and the suffering and the humiliations they suffered. The first lesson had begun. He was fluent and went on for almost thirty minutes. This was the best introduction I could have had. It enlivened my interest in art. Ivan suggested that I visit the reference section of the Public Library to see some good reproductions of El Greco. This was my first visit to the library. As most of the paintings were in colour and were of religious subjects, I liked them all the more.

It was a time when one rarely came across books on art.

I visited Ivan almost weekly. His place it was just a few minutes walking distance from my home.

One day in 1941, Ivan gave me Harry’s phone number and asked me to telephone him for an appointment. It was time for me to take lessons under him, Ivan said. There was a phone in Ivan’s house but he asked me to use the public phone. It was his way of helping me to rid myself of my shyness and act on my own. This happened to be my very first phone call and I had to build up sufficient confidence to enter the phone box, insert the coin and dial the number. There was a response. I delayed to reply and I heard once more: "Who is speaking"? I just managed to say "I am Richard Gabriel" and before I could proceed Harry said: "Ivan has spoken to me about you, can you come tomorrow at 9.30?" I agreed and thanked him.

The following day I cycled to ‘Rosebank’, Rosmead Place, Colombo 7. It was a big house, two or three storeys high, and with trepidation I rang the bell. A servant came and led me up the stairs to the top floor. Harry was seated with a book. I showed him a painting of an old beggar I had done on cardboard. He glanced at it and said, "You can see me after you complete your exams". I was delighted. I thanked him and the servant led me to the door.

I have to thank Ivan for ignoring formal lessons but for laying the foundation to my appreciation of art. Now I had the acquaintance of the work of an artist and I was now ready to work as one.

I was impatient and used whatever material I had at hand, cardboard, jute, etc. I used commercial paint from tin cans to prepare the jute. My improvised easel was two 6-inch nails stuck on the wall which served the purpose quiet well. When Ivan came to my place and saw my improvised easel he said I can have his old one. He also gave me some student colours saying his student days were over. The easel is still in use.

Ivan also invited me to meet some of his friends. Among them was George Claessen who joined us frequently. We met by the sea, a few minutes walk from Ivan’s place and seated on the rocks watched the roaring and rumbling waves dash against them. Sometimes we walked a fair distance to where the fishermen lived. If they were not out at sea they would be seen mending nets.

On one occasion we visited the 20th Century Club which was patronised by left-wing university students. An exhibition was being held there. There was Ivan’s work and a few older painters who eventually joined to form the ’43 Group. We then visited other friends of Ivan and returned to our respective homes. These casual meetings occurred fairly often.

In the early 1940s it was no longer whispers of war but it was real and active. Ceylon was governed by an army commander. Schools and spacious buildings were commandeered.

On Easter Sunday, 1942, we experienced the first-ever air raid. The following day Colombo was deserted. After this sudden panic it took a few months for normality to return.

Schools were conducted in make-shift cadjan sheds. Students were allotted an hour of compulsory agricultural activities, planting manioc, sweet potatoes, etc. in fear of a food shortage.

After these anxious months Ivan sent word for me to meet him. He had news of a show called The War Effort Exhibition organized by the information department.

Ivan gave me two canvases and asked me to enter some work. I submitted two oils and two pastels. Ivan won the first and the third prize. The Northern Province art inspector Kanagasabai, won second prize. I won four Honourable Mention prizes and received two hundred rupees, a lot of money at that time. The judges were Geoff Beling, Justin Daraniyagala and Harry Pieris.

On the strength of this success Harry phoned Ivan to ask me to see him. His address now was 32/4, Barnes Place, Colombo 7. The family’s ancestral home in Colombo had been commandeered.

The Barnes Place property consisted of a spacious block of land on which I believe were some unused stables. These Harry converted into a pleasant cottage-like home in which to live and work. His mother, too, lived in these pleasant surroundings in her own quarters with a common living room. The entrance was from the main Barnes Place and not as it is now. You walked along a path inhaling the fresh aroma of flowers — araliya, atteriya and jasmine — and turning left entered Harry’s comfortable lounge through an arbor of lemon creepers carefully tended by the gardener. This home and studio was converted to become Harry’s Sapumal Foundation in 1974.

When I went there, the old retainer Haramanis opened the door to me. Harry came along, asked me to sit and asked me whether I liked his new home. I said it was a more pleasant place than ‘Rosebank’. He smiled. He then asked me about our family. He listened to me and after a while observed: "Don’t think you can make a living by painting pictures!"

Harry’s lessons were formal and provided a good grounding but he never imposed his will on the student. My classes started with a bowl of cannas with a few leaves. I had to arrange them on a stool. If well arranged he would remark, "That is good. They fall into a good and interesting design. Do not worry about details but concentrate on the shapes, taking every shape into account as they join to form the whole. Always keep in mind that the sketch should fit well in relation to the shape and size of paper." At times he would draw to show what he expected and this was an approach very evident in all of Harry’s portraits and landscapes.

Having done many still-life drawings with Harry, he wanted me to use water-colours but never showed me how to handle them. If I happen to do a good one, he would remark, "That is well done". One day he asked me: "If you were to sell, how much would you expect?" I said I didn’t know. He would occasionally choose a few good ones and pay me ten or fifteen rupees for each, saying. "You can buy some painting materials with this money."

The next step in my education under Harry was to copy head-studies by Bellini, the Italian artist. He had done a number of paintings making simplified designs. This led to figure drawings — works of Raphael, da Vinci, etc. and finally to the live figure. Robert was the first model. He was Harry’s faithful servant and helper for almost half a century until the end. Robert posed so often he became a professional and fell into natural poses effortlessly. If Robert was not available it was stocky Piyadasa, the gardener.

To digress a bit: This was the time when Ivan was frantically engaged in a shuttle service meeting one artist or another – Harry, Beling, Collette. He went all the way to Nugedola to meet Justin, then back to Lionel Wendt, who was respected by all. Some think that the idea of getting artists of different views together was Wendt’s and Harry’s. This is quite plausible but it was Ivan who did the spade work and convinced them to convene at a meeting at Lionel Wendt’s house.

It was at this time that Lionel Wendt came to visit Ivan and saw a painting done by me. He told Ivan: "Let us rope him in". When Ivan told me this I did not think much about it. I was just a student in shorts and had no ambitions whatsoever. It was much later that I realized its importance.

To get back to Harry’s classes: after some time I was the only one of his students left. When I asked about them, Harry said: "I have informed their parents not to waste their money and my time".

Both Harry and Ivan taught me free as I could not afford to pay them.

On one occasion, when I arrived for a lesson, Harry was doing a head study of a Muslim man with his fez. He asked me to do a detail drawing too. Then he compared the two and pointed out that we had both got his features right but that the design in each was different. This was to demonstrate the individual difference of approach.

Giving me a basketful of lemons, Harry asked me to do a still-life at home. This was my first still-life with fruits in oils on canvas. It was later sold to the Italian Ambassador at the exhibition organized by the Italian Embassy.

Such was Justin Daraniyagala’s interest in the work of his colleagues in the Group that his last visit to Colombo was to attend my exhibition at the Italian Embassy in 1967. Justin had been ailing for months but the day after the exhibition closed he came, leaning heavily on a stick, one hand on his brother, Ralph’s arm, stooped beyond recognition. He limped into the near-empty gallery and apologised between agonising gasps: "I thought I could make it on time, Gabriel, but here I am. I’m dead from the waist downwards but I am still all there!"

The ‘43 Group was born in August 1943 at Lionel Wendt’s home. To mark this occasion its first exhibition was held in November 1943.

Before hanging the paintings, Ivan, Aubrey Collette and I had to do some white-washing and cleaning up. It was a large store room occasionally used by Lionel Wendt for photographic exhibitions

Harry was in charge of hanging the pictures and we had the help of Robert who by then had acquired an interest in paintings.

Whatever the critics had to say, it was an immense success as far as the artists involved were concerned.

The demise of Lionel Wendt within the next year in 1944 was a big blow that could have been the end of the Group. However, it was Harry who, like a rudder, steered the Group along the right course. It was his dedication to promote the cause of art in all its forms that impelled him to devote his time and energy to be the one and only secretary till the final exhibition in 1967.

I think it is relevant to mention Harry’s nephew, Ranjit Fernando, who passed away in March 2008, who single-handedly organized exhibitions of the Group in the UK, France and at the Venice Biennales in the 1950s. Credit must be given to him for the work he did at that time to make known the work of the ’43 Group in Europe. Also Neville Weereratne’s contribution in his book on the ’43 Group: "A Chronicle of Fifty Years in Art of Sri Lanka".

With the intention of taking photos of murals in the temples of the south, Harry arranged a trip which involved Harry himself, B P Weerawardene, the photographer, Ivan, S B Dissanayake, Iranganie Meedeniya; and Sita Kulasekara, whom I married in 1951. She passed away in 2001.

We went up to Hikkaduwa taking photographs of all the important murals. It was a wonderful experience. Some paintings had been ruined through neglect or destroyed by painting over them. Harry said: "These should be preserved, but the Archeological Department is interested only in Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa and, perhaps, the Gal Vihare as they are tourist attractions."

I hope the album containing these photographs are preserved at the Sapumal Foundation.

Can we imagine anyone so dedicated as to spend his money and time on preserving these murals, even as photographs, for future generations? By now most of the originals would be totally destroyed.

Harry possessed an excellent collection of books on almost every subject. It is a pity that they were sold for a pittance by the trustees, except for the books on art. I protested at the time but to no avail. Unfortunately democracy prevailed.

Rarely does one meet an individual like Harry. It is really amazing to think of his concern for the wellbeing of others. This was another gift he possessed next to painting. It is no surprise that he should have bequeathed all his wealth on the Sapumal Foundation which he founded.

Harry excelled as a portraitist and landscapist. The paintings done after his visit to the Ajanta caves are a master’s work. I am proud to possess a few including "Darjeeling Blooms’ done in India. He went out of his way to help sell the work of artists at the Group shows, using his taste and influence. Harry often brought friends and visitors from abroad all the way to wherever we lived, in Dehiwela, Kelaniya or Pannipitiya, to interest them in buying paintings. These visits were of immense help to me.

At an exhibition of my work organized by the Sapumal Foundation he fixed the last day to fall on my birthday. He had a birthday cake ready and got those present to sing "Happy Birthday to Gabriel". These were trying moments to me. He must have quietly smiled and enjoyed the fuss. When the Group sponsored a film show or a play he used me as an usher. He knew I preferred to be in the background. Well, I could not back out!

I visited Harry often. He was always interested to know how my family was coping with daily living after I gave up teaching. There was always a cup of tea made by Robert or old Haramanis. One day to my surprise Harry came with a cup of tea. I said, "You shouldn’t have troubled". He replied: "Robert is out, Haramanis is ill. I have to get used to at least making a cup of tea!"

He was very happy to see me drive a second-hand A30 car in 1960. When I visited him on one of my usual visits he needed to see his dentist and asked me to take him. I said, "It won’t be very comfortable but she is reliable" and drove him to the dentist. It took about half an hour. On the way back he said to me: "Don’t ever sell this car". I used it until I left Sri Lanka in 2002.

A few days before his death I saw him at the hospital. He asked me stay on while his attendant went out to have his lunch. After he left, Harry wanted to know whether I had sold any paintings. When I replied that I had, he smiled and said, "That’s good". This was the first occasion on which he spoke in a clear voice after he fell ill.

I am proud to say that I looked upon Harry as a foster-father, and I like to think that he had treated me very much like a son.

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