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Paintings: A Retrospective 1960-1986
by Patrick Boylan
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Lancelot Ribeiro was born in Bombay in 1933 to a Catholic family from what was then the tiny Portuguese colony of Goa on the west coast of India. He came to Britain in 1950 to study accountancy and it was during this stay that his creative interests were kindled. He abandoned accountancy and instead from 1951 to 1953 attended life drawing classes at St Martin's, and subsequently travelled through much of Europe before returning to Bombay to work in insurance in 1955. He began painting professionally in 1969.

His earliest professional works were in oils, strongly coloured, often dark, townscapes in the expressionist manner, although he also began to paint powerful and threatening mixed media faces, with an icon-like quality showing a clear relationship to the Christian tradition. His work was an immediate success, and by 1962 he had already had six one-man shows in Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta, and had contributed to several group exhibitions, one of which, 'Ten Indian Painters', subsequently went on an extended tour of Europe (including Britain), Canada and the USA.

 


Patrick Boylan (left) Nirmal Roy (right) at Swiss Cottage Library 1986-87 (Image courtesy of London Borough of Camden)


 

Paradoxically, once the immediate glamour of an early and easy success had its effect, he rebelled against it. He returned to Britain where he had spent his adolescent and impressionable years. This was in 1962 and by this time he had also begun to get exceedingly restless and tired of the trite and traditional painting techniques the effects of which had already begun to wear thin on this restless young painter. But then he always worked at such an incredible rate that it was not too difficult to see that he would soon be disenamoured by his current medium. He therefore began casting around for a new medium in which to work. He soon saw the potential for the artist in the new kinds of synthetic plastic bases that were just beginning to be introduced for commercial paints and began a series of several hundred detailed and carefully recorded experiments on hardboard, plywood, canvas an paper using Polyvinyl Acetates with different rates of plasticity. He worked in conjunction with some technical help proffered to him by several reputable and major companies including ICI, Courtaulds, Magros, etc., with PVAs and Ciba Dyes, Geigy U.K. Ltd and with ICI again in regard to colouring and pigmenting these PVAs.

He still uses quite regularly 23 years later the remains from some of these tenth of a pint-sized samples of different colours of what he found to be particularly useful Ciba-Geigy dye which had been developed for use in the carpet and fabric industry, and which was normally sold in minimum quantities of 22 gallon drums at a time.

In the Autumn of 1962, Ribeiro began to concentrate on the new chemical, Polyvinyl Acetate (PVA), which is colourless, chemically very stable and easily miscible with water-based colours. Incredibly he has been able to inter-mix oil-based mediums with the PVA. He also uses it with a wide variety of both natural pigments and synthetic high dispersal dyes. He found that in comparison with traditional oil paints, PVA could be made to dry in only a small fraction of the time (as he had hoped), and that in addition the finished painted surfaces were much more durable and flexible, especially when painting on canvas.

More important still, he quickly found that by mixing his own PVA colours with either dyes of opaque pigments (or often both), a far greater variety of effects could be achieved. These ranged from completely flat emulsion paint-like surfaces through to astonishing transparent shiny relief areas that would be almost indistinguishable from modern enamelling were they not plainly integral parts of works on canvas.

At times these experiments produced surprises and excitement in more than the artistic sense. On more than one occasion the experimental mixes produced paint films of such tensile strength that they would bend and sometimes break test strips of tempered hardboard or the plywood with loud bangs, often during the small hours of the morning, alarming both him and his family.

Despite the fact that within a couple of years or so interest in PVA and related materials was such that commercial PVA and acrylic artist's colours began to appear on the market, Ribeiro has continued to mix his own colours from bulk supplies of PVA and it was he who first suggested to one of the dyeing companies that he dealt with that they should seriously consider producing a finished product for the art market (in fact this finished product was what he was using and had pioneered so painstakingly). The response he got at the time was that this was not viable as the quantities dealt in would be very small within the art market. Within a few years however this self-same company formed a tie-up and began to supply a leading art firm with the very product that was developed by Ribeiro and which the company had stated to be non-viable.

His earliest U.K. paintings followed on directly from, and are virtually indistinguishable from, the expressionist townscapes and the 'Drawn Heads' with which he had gained such acclaim in India, although by 1963 he was beginning to use PVA (often combined with traditional oils in the early stages) in some paintings, including a new series of still lifes, and the later 'Drawn Heads' also include some in mixed media, especially oils and PVA combined.

During his first two years in Britain he exhibited quite extensively in the West End circuit, both in mixed shows and in two one-man shows, as well as in a mixed exhibition at the Galerie Lambert in Paris. However, he became increasingly perceived as an 'Indian' artist despite his very international style and subject matter at this period. He was a founder member of the Indian Painters Collective U.K. when this was set up in 1963, and was similarly a founder member of both the Rainbow Art Group (one of the first multi-cultural groups) in 1976, and of the Indian Artists U.K. Group in 1978.

Then followed a change in the later 1960s by works that drew more obviously on his Indian background. The first were intricate paintings and drawings of human forms owing something to the 'Drawn Heads' series, but based on complex organic root forms, many of them having a disturbing quality about them, as was seen in his substantial 1973 exhibition in the University of Sussex Arts Centre. Then, a brief flirtation with bold hard-edged geometrical abstractions led to the early 1970s interest in Tantra, which was yet another marked change of style in his major paintings, with patterns of large enamel-like shapes creating highly symbolic images ascending in more than one plane on a flat ground, as seen in Yantric Shift I, II and III.

By the mid-1970s he was combining his earlier interest in tortuous root forms with these symbolic forms to create a highly original series of 'line curves' in which the painted image usually spread over both the surface and the sides of three or more shallow canvas relief forms, an in 'Along a Hanging Line Curve' of 1979. Out of these have developed Ribeiro's most recent larger scale paintings - an equally original series of harmonious abstract derived landscapes in bands of blue, grey and purple pastel colours, often reminiscent of gently folded and contorted geographical strata. Alongside these, he is currently producing substantial landscape-derived watercolours with a remarkable luminosity again stretching the medium to considerable and unusual limits.

Although he was widely praised and exhibited in London during his first couple of years in England, Ribeiro and his work has been seriously neglected in the London art ‘scene’ in more recent years, and indeed as his work has become more and more original and distinctive. Although Indian, his parameters of style and content have never been strictly narrow or national in any sense and though his cultural origins plays a part he has never produced obviously Indian art. Whatever the reason, I feel there must be something seriously wrong with the London gallery system when an artist of the stature, importance and quality of Lancelot Ribeiro has had only three London shows in the past 19 years, and all of them in small and distinctly 'off Broadway' venues.

Ribeiro has done rather better in the provinces, with respectable one-man shows at the University of Sussex in Kendal in 1978, and Rotherham in 1980. The present Retrospective at the Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery covers a quarter of a century of his work in terms of time-span (although perhaps little more than 2% of his astonishingly prolific output over that period). Finally as this work goes to press, there is the very welcome news that Camden, where Lancelot Ribeiro has lived and painted for 23 years, is planning to recognise one of its most important and respected artists and residents next year.

Professor Emeritus Patrick Boylan, 1986

 

   
       

 
   

Drawn Head I I , pen on paper, 1962
size unknown
(Leicester Arts and Museums Service)
 
   
Terraneum
Terraneum I , oil & PVA on canvas, 1979
121.8 x 61.5 cm
(Leicester Arts and Museums Service)
     
       
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