Lancelot Ribeiro: Artist in the vanguard of the influx of Indian artists to Britain

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The Independent Online

Lancelot Ribeiro was one of the most original Indian painters who settled in Britain after the Second World War. Although there has been a surge of dealer and collector interest in artists from the subcontinent, Ribeiro remains relatively unknown compared with contemporaries such as his half-brother FN Souza, Avinash Chandra, Balraj Khanna and Anish Kapoor.

Over half a century Ribeiro produced a huge body of figurative and abstract work, including landscapes, portrait heads and still lifes, and continued painting intense and powerful images until he died. There was no decline in hisdesire to innovate in either style or medium. His largely unrecognised pigment experiments from the early 1960s led to works of peculiar brilliance and transparency.

Ribeiro was born in 1933 into a Bombay Roman Catholic family. His accountant father was Joao José Fernando Flores Ribeiro and Lance had a younger sister, Marina. Lance's mother, Lilia, had had his half-brother, Francis, by a previous marriage. She strongly influenced both sons.

After studying art in Bombay and showing in India, Francis, who painted as FN – Francis Newton – Souza, moved to London in 1949, Lance following in 1950, living with his brother and studying accountancy. This he abandoned, attending life classes at St Martin's School of Art between 1951-53. After National Service with the RAF in Scotland and extensive European travels he returned to Bombay, where he worked with the Life Insurance Corporation while painting and writing, then painted professionally from 1958.

A first solo exhibition at the Bombay Art Society Salon in 1960 soon sold out, followed by five others in Bombay, New Delhi and Calcutta. In 1961, Ribeiro was included in the "Ten Indian Painters" exhibition, followed by an extensive tour through India, Europe, the US and Canada.

The success of his first solo show led in 1961 to a commission for a 12ft mural for Tata Iron and Steel. Around this time he met and became friends with the nuclear physicist and Nobel Prize-winner Dr Homi Bhaba. Bhaba and Tata were two of the notable private and corporate collectors who would support him over the years.

After his Indian successes, Ribeiro returned to London with his wife in 1962, the year he received a grant from the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris. He was taken up for mixed shows by the prominent Piccadilly, Rawinsky, John Whibley and Crane Kalman galleries in London and the Paris-based Galerie Lambert. During the 1960s and 1970s Ribeiro did much to enhance the reputation of Indian artists working in Britain, exhibiting extensively, both in solo and group shows, and lecturing on Indian art and culture at the Commonwealth Institute.

Ribeiro loved poetry, and the poets R Parthasarathy, Nissim Ezekiel and Adil Jussawalla were close friends. In 1961 he was involved in readings sponsored by the British Council in Bombay and New Delhi, and in London in 1980 he organised two more.

During the early years after his return to London, Ribeiro's work was similar to his half-brother, FN Souza. Francis, preoccupied with a hectic social life, would sometimes leave works unfinished, allowing Lance to complete them. Then Francis would add his spiky signature. They were alike in temperament, would discuss and argue a lot, but remained close, his daughter Marsha Ribeiro said, after Souza left for New York in 1967.

What began to distinguish them was Lance's greater desire to experiment technically. He had found that traditional oil techniques hampered his desire to work at speed and began to examine the properties of the synthetic plastic bases starting to be used for commercial paints. Using Polyvinyl Acetates (PVAs) with varying rates of plasticity, he conducted numerous meticulously recorded experiments on varying supports, such as canvas and hardboard, with manufacturers such as Ciba-Geigy, Courtaulds and ICI provoding advice.

He found that faster drying speeds could be achieved than with traditional oil paints; finished surfaces were more flexible and durable, and exciting new effects could be achieved. Although at first there was a commercial reluctance to pursue Ribeiro's work, it was not long before acrylics began to be manufactured for artists.

In 1986, Ribeiro was granted a retrospective at the Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery covering his work from 1960, although it included little more than two per cent of his output over that period. Writing in the catalogue, Patrick J Boylan felt that "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."

Another important show followed in 1987 at Camden Arts Centre. Bythen, many works by Ribeiro were held in British and foreign public andcorporate collections. Even so, what Ribeiro lacked was a prominent,committed London gallery steadilyto foster his reputation.

Regretting this, Marsha Ribeiro said: "I often asked him about that. I don't think he knew how to represent himself or let others represent him properly. It was often a product of an arrogance he had and poor decision-making – not responding to the All India Gold Medal nomination in 1962, for example. But he also had some bad luck at focal points in his career."

Several examples could be cited. In recent years Ribeiro's later large works on paper have excited dealers in Germany and India. He achieved shows in Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Marburg, but one influential gallery that he had prepared a show for in 1989 suddenly had to wind up. In New Delhi, his large show at the LTG Gallery in New Delhi coincided with the 1998 Asian economic downturn.

Whatever the setbacks, Ribeiro could not stop working. He left a huge body of pictures and archive from which a memorial retrospective is planned. "Painting was his life and obsession and if he was ever away from his paints, he would become extremely restless," Marsha said. "He would paint through the night, often sleeping at eight or nine in the morning. A private diary scribbling found after his death encapsulated it for me: 'I twist and turn, curve and straighten without aim or result. Just an escape, an escapist thing into painting impulsively, compulsively, endlessly, tired, tirelessly with or without joy.'"



Lancelot Joseph Belarmin Ribeiro, artist: born Bombay 28 November 1933;married 1960 Ana Rita Pinto Correia (two daughters); died London 25 December 2010.

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