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the times obituary    
The Times' Obituary | Independent Obituary
Acclaimed Indian artist who pioneered the use of acrylics in the 1960s, producing a brilliancy of colour in his expressionistic works


Lancelot Ribeiro, invariably known as Lance, was, until the advent of Anish Kapoor, practically the best-known Indian artist resident in England. The only one better known was F. N. Souza, who happened to be his older brother. Not so many knew about the connection, which Lance kept very much in the background, fearing above all that he would be thought to be riding on the coat tails of his — during Souza’s heyday in the Sixties — more famous brother.

Essentially a modest man who lived a quiet life, Ribeiro’s life as an artist was lived mostly in England. He was born in Bombay in 1933, but to a Roman Catholic family from Goa, which made him, even in India, slightly exotic. He came to London in 1950, when he was 16, to study accountancy, and at first lived with his brother, who had arrived the previous year, in Hampstead, on the fringes of the London art world into which Souza had already plunged headlong. Though Lance was always interested in art and constantly sketching, he was still apparently destined for a more prosaic life as an accountant. Nonetheless, he did manage to enrol himself at St Martin’s School of Art, where he studied from 1952 to 1954, concentrating particularly on life drawing. After graduating from St Martin’s he did his National Service in the RAF and then had a gap year travelling around Europe, feeling particularly at home in Paris.

Despite this experience, like a dutiful son he returned to Bombay and took up a job with an insurance company. But the urge to paint would not be denied. He painted for a while as an enthusiastic amateur, but had started to attract attention.

In 1960 he had a one-man exhibition in the Bombay Art Society Salon, which to his utter amazement, sold out instantly. This confirmed him in his determination to give up accountancy and become a professional painter. As a result of the exhibition’s success, he was commissioned to paint a 12-ft mural for Tata Iron and Steel, and acquired as one of his most enthusiastic patrons the nuclear scientist Homi Bhabha, who bought and commissioned several paintings from him. Souza suggested that he should build on this success and remain in India, but he hankered after the cosmopolitan charms of London, and returned to live and work there in 1962, bringing with him his new wife.

By this time he had already had six solo shows in India and participated in an influential group show, Ten Indian Painters, which toured India and then the world, starting in London and going on to the US and Canada.

In 1962 he was one of many significant painters “discovered” by Godfrey Pilkington of the Piccadilly Gallery, who included him in a mixed exhibition which led to a series of one-man shows at various galleries in London, including the Rawinsky Gallery and the Everyman Art Gallery. During these years he was immensely productive on his own behalf, but also worked regularly, and uncomplainingly, as his brother’s studio assistant. Souza, who appreciated, sometimes excessively, the social delights of bohemian life, frequently abandoned works little more than begun in his studio and left it to Lance to elaborate and finish them off, returning to examine the results and append his flamboyant signature.

Unsurprisingly, Ribeiro’s own work was at this period frequently very similar to Souza’s, but it remained distinctive largely through his readiness to experiment technically. He had begun by painting in traditional oils, though even his earliest-surviving works show stylistic independence, incorporating elements of popular Indian graphic art along with touches of New York Abstract Expressionism and hints of Bernard Buffet’s skeletal draughtsmanship. In the Sixties he became increasingly impatient with the time it took for oils to dry and the lack of brilliance in its colour potential. Consequently, he immediately seized upon the new synthetic plastic bases which were coming into use for commercial paints. He managed to enlist the co-operation of manufacturing companies, such as ICI, Courtaulds and Geigy, which happily supplied him with sample quantities (so many that he was still using them up 30 years later) of their latest paint products.

The result of his experiments in his own work was a unique brilliance of colouring along with remarkable durability and transparency, which enabled him to build up the surfaces of his paintings until they became virtually indistinguishable from enamel. He even found a way to combine these plastics with water-based paints. But his work in this area had a more general application: at first when he urged the companies he dealt with to produce these PVA compounds to sell for artistic use they held back, saying that they doubted if the quantities required would be commercially viable. But soon they recognised that there was a large potential interest, and so Ribeiro became the godfather of generations of artists using acrylics as an alternative to oils.

In certain respects Ribeiro came into his own as an independent figure in London’s artistic life after Souza had left for the US in 1967. In 1972 he lectured on Indian Art and Culture for the Commonwealth Institute. In 1976 he was a founder member of a multicultural art group known as the Rainbow Art Group and in 1978 he founded the Indian Artists United Kingdom Group.

He was an indefatigable organiser of art events, both in London and in his family home of Goa, where he also had solo exhibitions. In London in the 1980s he exhibited mainly in mixed shows, but he had important solo exhibitions at the Gardner Arts Centre, Brighton (1973), Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal (1978) and Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester, a retrospective from 1960 to 1986 (1986).

He returned to London with a big show at the Camden Art Centre in 1987. During the next two decades he rather faded from view, along with others of his generation, but he continued to paint, sure that the tide of fashion would turn eventually, as indeed, in his very last years, it did.

Though inevitably the shadow of Souza still lies heavy over Ribeiro’s reputation, Ribeiro’s painting is more varied, more striking in its use of colour (Souza’s reputation is based on his highly individual style of draughtsmanship), and less aggressive in subject matter and attitude. The early work, largely landscape, closely resembles Souza’s, but in later years Ribeiro eschewed the Expressionist style they then shared, and travels much further towards abstraction. He was pleased that interest in his work had rekindled shortly before his death, but, as ever, philosophically, unsurprised.

He is survived by his wife and two daughters. Lancelot Ribeiro, painter, was born on November 28 1933. He died on December 25, 2010, aged 77

(Published Monday 24 January 2011)

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