EARLY PAINTERS OF CEYLON
Dr. R K de Silva
Although artists both old and young of the present day
have been given adequate exhibition and prominence for many years, it is a matter for
regret that the pictorial impression of our island left behind by earlier generations have
been ignored almost completely. In this article, I shall endeavour to give the
reader a glimpse into the past, covering very broadly, some of the artists and their work
over the period of European colonisation.
There is little to show for the 150 years of Portuguese rule, whatever, illustrated
material there is, being in Lisbon.
The Dutch period was more fruitful and is more fully documented. In 1672, the
Rev. Philip Baldaeus who had lived in Jaffnapatnam for many years published an account of
contemporary life which was illustrated with copper engravings. 1724, saw Francois
Valentyn's "oud en Nieuw Oost-Indien", the most authoritative and comprehensive
Dutch work about the Island, similarly illustrated. Valentyn however, never visited
Ceylon, and his book is based on original Dutch documents and manuscripts to which he
presumably had unlimited access.
A little later and of special interest to the botanist, we have the accurately depicted
drawings of over 100 indigenous plants in Johannes Burman's thesaurus Zeylanicus. An
equally attractive work, was the collection of drawings of local flora and fauna
commissioned from P.C. de Bevere by Governer J G Loten (1752 - 57), which is today in the
British Museum of Natural History.
Further visual impressions of 18th centuary Ceylon was provided by the German
traveller, Wolfgang Heydt (1736) who recorded his travels with typical German diligence
and include detailed engravings especially of the topography of the island.
The recently opened Dutch period Museum in Colombo has an oil painting by C F Reynier
showing an audience granted by Governor Falck to a Kandyan Embassy, A similar water colour
by the same artist is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which has, also, pictures by other
artists of the period Jan Brandes, Steiger and Johannes Rach, dealing with views of the
Slave Island in Colombo, of Jaffna, and of the City and Fort of Colombo.
Similar landscapes and drawings also exist in the Algemeen Rijksarchief, and the Royal
Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology in Leiden.
The periods of Portuguese and Dutch rule in Ceylon, which covered almost there
centuries bear little evidence of paintings on paper by native artists. It may be,
that the indigenous tradition did not favour this medium. Another reason would have
been, that the manner of recording manuscripts, in ola (palm) leaved books, would not have
The Englishman, Robert Knox's "Historical Relation of Ceylon" was published
in 1681 with copper plate engravings (probably incorporating Knox's original drawings,
"finished off" by others), depicting various aspects of contemporary life, some
of which, like ploughing and threashing remain little changed to this day.
The British period produced a wealth of paintings and drawings by both professional and
amateur artists. Water colour appears to have been the most extensively used medium
and large numbers of the original sketches have been used to illustrate books and in the
preparation of prints, aquatints, lithographs, etc.
One of the earliest artists was Eudelin de Jonville, an accomplished Corsican who
arrived in Ceylon in 1798 as a member of Governor North's staff. There is an
unpublished Manuscript dated 1801 in the Indian Office Library in London, which consists
of three bound volumes entitled "Quelques notions sur I' isle de Ceylon" (on the
religion and the manners of the people of Ceylon).
The first volume consists of the text which is illustrated with several drawings,
including the familiar one of Gen. Macdowall and Pilimatalawe. The other two volumes
consist entirely of over 250 carefully executed coloured drawings of flora and fauna.
An idea of the high quality of de Jonville's artistic capabilities may be obtained
from an illustration in Rev. Cordiner's "Description of Ceylon" (1807).
Henry Salt visited Ceylon in 1803. The large
engraving of his "View near Point de Galle" (1809) is well known.
Samuel Daniell died in Ceylon in 1811 having lived
there for five years. He made an extensive number of drawings, particularly of the
natural history of the island, all executed with exquisite taste and fidelity. He
published a set of twelve most attractive, large aqatints - "Scenery, animals, and
Native Inhabitants of Ceylon".
Samuel's better known brother William is also said to have made several drawings,
including the controversial portrait of the Queen of Kandy, as appears in the Oriental
Annual of 1834. It is much more likely however, that these drawings were completed
by William, from sketches sent to him by Samuel.
The Rev. Cordiner who resided in Ceylon from 1799-1804 made most of the drawings for
the engravings in his book. Some twenty plates show the costumes of the country, the
most striking scenes along the coast and many distinctive features of the inland
districts. In 1810, Maria Graham, traveller, author and amateur painter, visited
Ceylon. Her album of pencil sketches and water colour drawings of the coast from
Colombo to Trincomalee is in the British Library.
A number of British military personnel appear to have been trained artists and
topographers. Major William Lyttleton (1819)
apart from illustrating Davy's "Account of Ceylon" produced six outstanding
Ceylon views dedicated to Sri Robert Brownrigg which were the basis of large coloured
Several very attractive water colours by Lysaght have recently been acquired by the
India Records Office. The represent the artistic skill of a private soldier and are
a rare topographical record of the panorama of Trincomalee, Galle and Colombo in the
Major Forbes (1841) illustrated his own book "Eleven years in Ceylon". These
include "The Exihibition of the Buddha's Tooth in Kandy, Tombs of the kings of Kandy,
Temple of Dambool etc".
In 1845, John Deschamps published "Scenery
and Reminiscences of Ceylon", a series of twelve tinted lithographs made from
Perhaps, the best known are Capt. O'Brien's 15
lithographs (1864) showing views of Colombo, Galle, Kandy, the antiquities of Anuradhapura
and Polonnaruwa and panoramic views of the hill country. Ransonnet
lithographed twenty six beautifully delicate and accurate drawings, paying much attention
to vevegetation and including under water sketches for which he used a diving-bell.
Sir Samuel Baker, the well known traveller and big game hunter, in "Eight Years
Wanderings" and in the "Rifle and the Hound" made drawings of animals and
hunting scenes. A similar personality, Hungarian Count, Emanuel Andrasy, made the
drawings for six hand coloured sepia lithographs, chiefly of elephant hunting scenes.
Recently, the Martyn Gregory Gallery in London, exhibited the work of Lt. Thomas
Walford Bellairs, an Admirality agent. These consisted of about thirty five
attractive pen & ink and water colour drawings, which are a faithful record of
temples, buildings, and life on the coast from Galle to Colombo, as well as of the
hinterland, executed 1845-47.
Mrs. M Brunker, the wife of the Deputy Adjutant General of the British Regiment in
Ceylon made about seventy water colour drawings of the contemporary scene, which are now
preserved at the University Library at Peradeniya.
Edward Lear, an artist with a most individual style, whose drawings are much sought
after today, spent about a month in Ceylon in 1874 and despite ill health, painted several
water colours, some of which were reproduced in the "Indian Journal".
About the same period, Constance Gordon Cummings, also an extensive traveller, author
and artist, painted many scenes of Ceylon, a large number being used to illustrate her
"Two Happy Years in Ceylon" Marianne North, the well known botanical artist,
spent 1876-77 in Ceylon.
Her paintaings of the flora and landscapes of Ceylon are exhibited at the Marianne
North Gallery at Kew Gardens in England.
Ernst Haeckle, well known naturalist and friend of Darwin, spent about six months in
1881-82 and seventy of his sketches are at the Haeckle Museum in Jena.
Apart from those mentioned, many other visitors come to mind, who painted Ceylon, often
undergoing great deprivation and hardship to give their own countrymen a view of the
island at the time, while preserving for us and posterity, a visual record of a variety of
aspects of our past.