The art of Richard Gabriel
For over a period of some 450 years, Sri Lanka was under the
influence of several western cultures. Much evidence of that experience
still remains. It is to be seen, for instance, in the well-known Roman
Catholic Church, the heritage of the Portuguese (1505-1656), An elite
group of towns folk known as the Burgers who sprang from Dutch colonial
servants who stayed on after their masters left the island.
While the British set up commercial and administrative institutions
during their rule they gave birth to an English speaking, and English
educated people to work in public office and private firms. This process
at work created a new class of intellectuals familiar with the taste and
culture and gave rise to a new political consciousness and introduced a
notion of painting that serves decidedly secular purpose very different
from the decorative art of the Buddhist temples.
Richard Gabriel is a product of the history briefly recounted above.
Payyagala Baduge Richard Mansuetus Don Gabriel was his full name.
There was no room left to write this name on his birth certificate. When
it is put on, on A4 sheet it fills one line from left to right. He was
born a Roman Catholic born on February 19, 1924 in the old Dutch
fortress town of Matara. Gabriel's father died in the year he was born.
His father had four daughters by an earlier marriage and three sons from
a second marriage.
At the age of nine, after Gabriel had studied for a few years at the
local conventschool, the family moved to Colombo. Life in Colombo was
hard. His mother Cyriline Don Gabriel maintained a frugal household with
her meager pension enhanced by small earnings from sewing and lace -
making. Richard Gabriel was the youngest of the family. Gabriel attended
St. Peter's College, Bambalapitiya. St. Peter's provided Richard Gabriel
with a liberal education. That gave him an awareness of Sri Lankan's
antiquity and its people, an ancient race dedicated to the teachings of
Meanwhile, war had broken out in Europe. Japanese entered the war in
1941 with the raid of the Pearlharbour. The presence of British military
personnel and their camoutflaged vehicles were of course, a visible
reminder that there was a war in progress. On the Easter Sunday morning
of 1942, the Japanese raided Colombo and many saw the havoe they
created. It was Sri Lanka's first real experience of war. Education was
interrupted when school buildings were requistioned for use by the
British armed services. As a public relation exercise to win public
support, the Government Information Department organised an exhibition
of paintings in 1943, named The Ceylon Waar Effort Picutres exhibition.
Gabriel submitted four paintings in oil which depicted the bombing of
Colombo. All four of his paintings won prizes. This prize money was Rs
200, a vast sum in those days. At the age of 19, he became a founder
member of the '43 Group. Gabriel was warmly recieved by his Colleagues
in the '43 Group. Some of them were his senoris by many years but did
not stand in the way. On the whole in Gabriel's words;" members of the
Group were my close friends. I doubt there was ever any professional
jealously." The '43 Group, of course, welcomed young painters and in
more than 20 years of activity, saw several of them take their place in
its company. Richard Gabriel was one of the orginal Group fo artists '43
Group as others included Aubrey Collette, George Keyt, Ivan Pieris,
Harry Pieris and Jastin Daraniyagala to name a few. Gabriel's life has
been characterised by ceaseless endeavour.
From the time Ivan Pieris took him under his care and led him devote
himself to art, his work has been constant and consisitent.
Ivan Pieris took Gabreil to Harry Pieris, who was Gabriel's lifelong
guide and philosopher. Traned in art first under Ivan Pieris, one of Sri
Lanka's most gifted artists and winner of the Western art scholarship
and later under Harry Pieris, another of Sri Lanka's talented painters,
Gabriel reflects their influence in his orginal creative work, but his
work remains true to his own vision. He finds interest in all types of
work - figure composition, landscape, portraiture, and differnt media.
Richard Gabriel married Sita Kulasekera in 1951 and pursued their
single - minded interest in painting. In 1952, the British Council
offered Gabriel a scholarship to study in the United Kigndom and
together with his newly married wife he sailed for London. He enrolled
at the Chelsea School of Art where he had his experince of drawing from
the nude in formal drawing sessions. Later he continued his studies with
Peterde Francia from whom he learnt the essentials of prepasing canvas
for wall paintings. Gabriel had his first murals done at St. Theresa's
Church, Thimbirigayayay. Gabriel is highly skilled. The texttures he
achieves in his canvases have a vitality that comes from a profound
appreciation of th enature of clolur. Not for Gabriel the obvious
spectrum taken directly, from the paint box but one that is built upon
layers upon layers, because eventally, colur is a compisite of every hue
of the rainbow.
The vigour with which Gabriel paints comes from the enjoyment of his
own skills. Gabriel had early experimented with linocuts and wood cuts,
an dlter graduted to etchings in 1967.
The immediate result was a book of etchings produced in 1975 called
'the cross' and dedicated it to death, 'God's gift to us all.'
The invitation to paint murals at St. Theresa's Church was, of
course, a God-sent. It was a rare opportunity. Other commissions have
incluced work done for the Jesuit Chapel in Bambalapitiya, for the
National Seminary at Ampitiya, Kandy. 'The last supper' at St. Aloysius'
seminary in Borella in 1967. Many generations of young seminarians were
introduced to the world of art and their own inborn talents wer
encouraged and nurtured and made to grwo by Richard Gabriel the genius.
His religious background explains many facets of his work other than the
His enormous output at the easel, his powerful work as a sculptor in
wood, as a muralist, and now a print maker were evidence enough of a