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Ribeiro: Celebrating ‘forgotten’ artist’s odyssey

As an exhibition at Holborn Library ably demonstrates, Lancelot Ribeiro’s artistic journey spanned the continents

26 May, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Lancelot Ribeiro in the 1980s

IT was a journey that took a teenager across continents, searching for a better life – and eventually led to Lancelot Ribeiro becoming an artist whose work was a product of wide influences.

Now, an exhibition of the painter and sculptor, born in Mumbai but who lived in London for more than 50 years, tells his story.

Hosted by the Camden Local Studies Archive at Holborn Library, it shows examples of his work and tells his story through personal diaries, letters and photographs. Items from his Belsize Park studio are also on display, bringing alive the painter.

Biographer David Buckman states that despite working prolifically for 50 years, he was “outside a small circle, essentially a forgotten figure” when he died in 2010 – but his story tells of both a 20th century British art movement and a personal example of Commonwealth immigration.

Lancelot was born in 1933. As his daughter Marsha says, his childhood, spent in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, had a large influence on him and can be seen through his early paintings.

Ribeiro’s Untitled Compositional Landscape, 1987. Photo: V&A collection

“It was important for his early work,” she says. “Goa is a little like Mediterranean Europe on the Indian sub-continent. The churches and cathedrals of Goa are very striking and feel Iberian. My father’s early work is full of such churches and spires.”

He showed an early aptitude for drawing and painting but aged 16 his family sent him to England to study accountancy. His older brother, the artist FN Souza, had already made the trip against the backdrop of the turmoil of Indian independence and Lancelot lived with him in Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill.

“My father arrived after a 21-day voyage on the P&O steamship, the Mooltan,” says Marsha and Lancelot’s experience when he first came to London echoes that of so many who travelled long distances to work in a new country.

He wrote of the self-doubt and anguish he experienced on arrival – “It was a dull, grey, heavily laden aqueous day, depressing wetness that got to the bone… I have never forgotten those disillusioned and troubled days… spent in anguish and tears. I was alone, with nothing but a constantly growing fear… Why had I left home and all that I knew, felt and could touch?”

Ribeiro’s Untitled Watercolour, dating from 1986

He studied for his accountancy exams and brushing up his English – but began to be drawn towards a less secure career. In 1951 he enrolled at St Martins and began studying life drawing.

He returned to India in the mid-50s after being given a compassionate discharge from National Service in the RAF when his mother had fallen ill. He had been posted to Scotland, shooting rabbits as part of a project to eradicate the disease myxomatosis. “My father was very opposed to hunting and did not like it,” adds Marsha.

He headed back to Mumbai, bought his first set of paints and some hardboard and success followed. Writing poetry too, he mixed in Mumbai’s artistic circles and in 1961 had his first solo show, a mix of landscapes and townscapes, portraits and still-lifes.

Despite this success, Lancelot wanted to come back to London and returned in 1963 with his wife and first daughter, Raisa.

Settling in Belsize Park Gardens, he worked from a studio there and began a long interest in the marriage of Western and Indian art.

He became part of a group known as the Indian Painters Collective, organising shows and becoming part of a scene in 1960s London.

“At this time, a succession of Commonwealth immigration controls were brought into force, which progressively restricted the entry of black and Asian immigrants into Britain and increased racial tension,” says Marsha.

Ribeiro (front row, centre) in the RAF in 1954

“His anger would have been stoked by the rising tide of anti-immigration rhetoric. Against this backdrop, Ribeiro was at the forefront of fighting discrimination directed against painters from the subcontinent, trying very hard to penetrate seemingly impregnable barriers in a system hell-bent on ignoring them.”

As well as co-founding the Indian Painters Collective in 1963, he was part of the Indian Artists UK, lectured on Indian art and culture for the Commonwealth Institute and brought an “Indian Month” to Burgh House in 1980.

His work developed through the decades, moving from oils that reflect his background through to watercolours.

“His watercolours date from 1974 onwards and were originally inspired by the landscape of northern England,” says Marsha.

“In 1980 he moved to Haverstock Hill. He noted to friends that the constraints of space meant he could only really work – at least initially – on a small scale. Living close to Hampstead Heath, he started a new series of finely detailed grass and tree scenes, often reflecting the Heath through seasonal change.”

Ribeiro’s work deserves celebrating. The exhibition, developed with the British Museum, Burgh House, Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, Central Saint Martins and the V&A, it is part of a project to take his work into schools.

“It builds a legacy from his work for years to come,” adds Marsha.

Retracing Ribeiro: An Indian Artist in Camden is at Holborn library, 32-38 Theobalds Road, WC1X 8PA, until July 28. For more see www.lanceribeiro.co.uk

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