EXHIBITION - Lancelot Ribeiro (Nov 10-24, 2014) :

Lanceloté José Belarmino Ribeiro was born in Bombay in 1933, to a long-established Goan family. His older half-brother, the artist Francis Newton Souza (1924 – 2002), had been born in Goa on the west coast of India, which was until 1961 a Portuguese colony. However, following the death of her husband, Souza’s mother moved with her infant son 400 miles northwards to the City of Bombay, where she remarried and Ribeiro and their sister Marina were born.

The family’s Goan Roman Catholic, especially Jesuit, religious and cultural tradition was seen in amongst many other things the naming of the two sons: “Francis” for the Jesuit missionary of India, St. Francis Xavier, while Ribeiro’s third Christian name of “Belarmino” is Portuguese for St. Robert Bellarmine, the Jesuit Cardinal who was a leading figure in the Counter-Reformation in late 16th to early 17th century Rome.

The Bombay of Ribeiro’s childhood and youth was a very cosmopolitan city and one of the major centres of the continent for culture and science. There can be little doubt that his Bombay education contributed greatly to the life-long breadth of his interests, and his encyclopaedic knowledge about not just art but also culture more widely, including literature and philosophy, was familiar to all who spent time with him.

Ribeiro also had wide scientific interests, and both Homi Bhabha (1909-1966), the physicist who pioneered cosmic ray research and went on to establish nuclear research in India, and J.R.D. Tata (1901 – 1993), the leading Indian industrialist of the 20th century became personal friends and patrons.

However, these childhood years were also very turbulent times. The various campaigns for Indian independence affected all parts of British India through the 1930s and 1940s. (His brother, Francis Souza, was expelled from the prestigious Sir J.J. School of Art in 1945 because of his active support of the Quit India Movement). After Independence in 1947, Souza founded the Bombay-based Progressive Artists’ Group to promote an interest in, and the practice of, art specifically reflecting the international avant-garde of the time, but he left India to live in London in 1949, and his sixteen-year-old brother joined him there the following year.

Lance (as he much preferred to be known later in life) was already both very knowledgeable about, and interested in, art and culture more widely, and though he had had no formal art training he was already showing considerable talent with his own drawings. His mother sent him to London, on his brother’s advice, to study accountancy (his father’s profession) although the move to London was kept secret from his father until after he left. However, he soon abandoned his course and from 1951 to 1953 instead attended classes at the highly regarded St. Martin’s School of Art. He stayed with Souza at his Chalk Farm house: by this time Souza was developing a noteworthy career and reputation as an artist and writer. Alongside his studies at St Martin’s, Ribeiro worked as an unofficial studio assistant or apprentice to his brother. Ribeiro soon began to develop a reputation for his own art, though in the early stages he was not surprisingly influenced by the contemporary expressionist style being used by his brother.

Ribeiro’s artistic development was interrupted when he was called up for National Service (as a British Empire national at the time of his birth in India), and during 1954-5 he served in the Royal Air Force, mostly in Scotland, following which he returned to settle in Bombay. Working at first for a life insurance company, while painting and writing in his spare time, from 1958 he was able to become a full-time artist. After a first solo exhibition at the Bombay Artist Aid Centre in 1961, which was a sell-out, his big national and international break-through came with his inclusion in the Ten Indian Painters exhibition organised by the Indian Writers Association, which toured extensively in India, Europe, the UK, United States and Canada over 1960 and 1961. Further recognition came in 1961 with the commission through the Tata Group’s Chairman and Chief Executive, J.R.D. Tata, to paint a 12ft mural in the new offices of Tata Iron and Steel.

“Lancelot Ribeiro has a fine sense and quality of colour. His pictures have an impressive strength and great emotional power. He is a painter to be understood and studied.” Rudi Von Leyden, Eves Weekly, November 1961

In 1960, Ribeiro had married Ana Rita Pinto Correia from Goa, and following his international successes in 1962 he moved permanently to London, where Ana Rita and their two daughters still live. Further recognition soon followed, and as the list of both solo and mixed exhibitions in the catalogue shows, he was very soon represented in exhibitions at some of London’s leading contemporary art galleries of the day, including the Piccadilly, Crane Kalman, John Whibley and Nicholas Treadwell galleries, as well as in the Galerie Lambert, Paris. Following at least six one-man shows in India before his return to England, through the 1960s, he had four more solo exhibitions in London, one each in Chicago and San Francisco and two in Goa.

His paintings of this period began as mainly boldly coloured expressionist townscapes or still lifes of the sort he had painted in India, but became increasingly semi-abstract, and there were a growing number of paintings and drawings of figures. Throughout his life, Ribeiro always insisted that his works were essentially the product of his imagination rather than representations of reality.

Ribeiro’s output throughout his working life was prolific and he worked at great speed most of the time – something which led him to develop and pioneer one of the most significant advances in artistic technique of the twentieth century. He was a skilled painter in traditional oil colours, as the excellent condition of many of his earlier oil paintings in this exhibition show. However, he became very frustrated with this traditional medium. It has been known for centuries that if cracking and eventual paint loss is to be avoided, there has to be a very long drying time etc. between applying successive layers of oil paint or to build up thick layers to give an actual or perceived relief effect – frustrating or worse for artists wanting to work very quickly or to use an impasto technique.

From the mid-1960s, Ribeiro began to look for other painting mediums that might replace traditional oil colours, and quickly hit on polyvinyl acetate (PVA) as a very promising possibility. One of the earliest synthetic polymers to be developed, PVA could be produced at a small fraction of the cost of natural oils traditionally used in both decorating and artists’ paints of all kinds. Also, PVA could be processed to make water-based emulsions of a wide range of viscosities, greatly reducing both application and drying times. PVAs had already been in widespread use in a range of adhesives, and by the 1950s the first commercial PVA emulsion paints were coming into use for decorating, replacing distempers and lime-wash in painting interior walls. Commercial emulsion paints did not make satisfactory artists’ colours and Ribeiro felt that far better materials could be created by going back to the basic PVA. He therefore approached ICI - the main UK manufacturer - which was intrigued and readily provided him with a free sample. This turned out to be a 22 gallon container - their smallest unit – compared with the few ounces of a tube of a traditional artists’ oil colour. He also approached Ciba-Geigy who was developing completely new types and ranges of synthetic pigments and stains that were chemically compatible with PVA and similarly received free samples. He then began a series of meticulously recorded experiments on canvas, board and paper using a wide range of combinations of PVA mediums and colours. He was still using some of those original free samples well over two decades later!

The results were quickly applied to his own art, in the many paintings of the second half of the 1960s using a thick impasto of his own PVA paint in previously unavailable semi-transparent colours. This was first seen in the major change in his series of semi-abstract heads of the 1960s, with the perhaps tentative appearance of the new PVA in a mixed media head of 1965, followed by the increasingly bold use of a thick PVA impasto in startling colours in those of 1966 and 1967. At the other extreme, he saw in his experiments the potential of PVA in creating paints that would cover flat surfaces completely smoothly and in strong colours, as seen in the large landscape or geologically-inspired striped paintings from the late sixties or early seventies onwards, and some related painted constructions. Very soon leading artists’ colour manufacturers were adding PVA paints to their ranges, which were quickly taken up by both professional and amateur artists around the world. Sadly, Ribeiro never made a penny out of this major revolution in artists’ materials and techniques and his central role in it is today almost forgotten.

“I twist and turn, curve and straighten often without aim or result. Just an escapist think into painting impulsively, compulsively, endlessly, tired, tirelessly, with or without joy.” (Lance Ribeiro, undated)

In the mid-1970s, Ribeiro and his wife separated and in time he established a long-running relationship with the archaeologist Brenda Capstick OBE, the Secretary of The Museums Association, moving from Belsize Park into her three storey early Victorian house in Egbert Street, in nearby Primrose Hill. Already very well known in contemporary art and literary circles, the development widened Ribeiro’s circle even further, bringing him into contact not only with the long-established arts, music and theatre circles of Primrose Hill, but also leading figures of the art gallery and museum world. He quickly became a popular figure at national and international conferences and cultural and social events, and at last he began to be exhibited in English public galleries and collections, including retrospectives in the Leicestershire Art Gallery in 1986 and Swiss Cottage Library Gallery in 1987.

Brenda Capstick came originally from Ingleton, Yorkshire, on the southern edge of the Yorkshire Dales and owned a cottage in the village where Ribeiro often stayed with her on weekend breaks, and they were joined by the two daughters during the holidays. It is clear that the relaxed atmosphere of his stays in Ingleton and the landscapes and geological features of the Dales, had a marked influence on him both personally and artistically. Though completely abstract in conception many of the striped paintings reflect the stratification of the Dales' landscape.

“Lance Ribeiro’s art was an immediate success. Paradoxically, once the immediate glamour had its effect, he rebelled against it. By 1962 he had also begun to get exceedingly restless…”
Extract from Patrick Boylan’s catalogue Paintings: A Restrospective 1960-1986 for Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery, 1986

Now painting on a larger scale and with renewed energy, his paintings and constructions eventually filled not only his own studio in the Egbert Street house and the walls of all the living rooms but also overflowed into hallways, landings and stairways throughout most of Brenda’s house, to her increasing exasperation – desperation even! In the early 1980s he finally moved out to a small upper floor flat in a large house on nearby Haverstock Hill, where he lived and continued to work right through to his death there three decades later.

In terms of his qualities as a man, I feel first that though life was often a struggle, at least after the period of greatest financial success in the 1960s, he was really only ambitious for his art: exhibitions and sales were the means to an end, not the end itself. Second, he was one of the most remarkable – and often very entertaining – people it has been my privilege to know: I shall also value our more than thirty years of friendship.

Patrick Boylan, Professor Emeritus, City University, London
Former Director of Museums and Art Galleries, Leicestershire
August 2012

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