Obituary: George Keyt

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The Independent Online
George Keyt, artist: born 1901; married three times; died Colombo 31 July 1993.

NO ONE has so far attempted to count the number of styles, representational or modernistic, adopted and discarded by the artist George Keyt.

The 12 line drawings Keyt made in 1947 for a new edition of his translation of 'Gita Govinda', a 12th-century Sanskrit poem about Sri Krishna and his love for Radha, are famous in the sense that tens of hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of copies have been printed with authority, or pirated. But Keyt never drew in this style again. His first published work dates from 1925 or 1926. Yet the style he adopted for the people of those days was totally different from the innumerable variations he invented for different subjects, new friends and special exhibitions. He was perpetually inventive and still working at the time of his death at the age of 92. His methods partly expressed his own inner needs, and partly addressed his current public. Picasso and Matisse were great liberating influences from 19th-century conventions, but it cannot be said that Keyt's work resembles that of either.

When I first met George Keyt 50 years ago, Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called, was in effect a multiracial society, containing numerous different classes, castes, religious beliefs, three major languages and a combination of several different legal systems. Although the island was technically a British colony, universal adult franchise had been introduced in 1931, so that political power was quite widely distributed, and compromise was the order of the day. Although the most appalling world war was raging, Ceylon was almost unaffected, except by the shortage of rice caused by the Japanese occupation of Burma, and the sudden arrival of large British and Indian military forces.

In 1943 the brilliant aesthete or rasika Lionel Wendt and the painter Harry Pieris organised a select number of artists under the name of the 43 Group to hold a small exhibition in Colombo. Since 1939 Keyt had been living in seclusion near Kandy with his second wife, Pillawela Manike. His appearance at the opening of the exhibition, which was quite informal, was therefore what is journalistically called a 'sensation'. No paintings or drawings by him had been exhibited since 1936. He had produced a new style, or even two new styles. One of the exhibiting artists, George Claessen, pointed out to me that they contained a poetical quality unusual in contemporary art.

Having been born in 1901 into a prosperous English-speaking family, and educated at Trinity College, Kandy, Keyt had already, in 1943, seen enormous changes in the world. I suppose the first important political event to impinge on him must have been the serious riots of 1915, which led to a disastrous period of martial law, and some wrongful executions. A fierce Buddhist nationalism prevailed, and there was much excited controversy.

Although Keyt's parents lived only a short distance from Trinity College, Keyt refused to continue with his schooling, but the headmaster allowed him to go on using the library. Kandy also had a good public library. Whether he had mastered Latin and Greek at the time I do not know, but in 1978, on his only visit to England, he related to me in the course of luncheon the entire plot of Oedipus Rex, and made it seem extremely funny. After the war, he used to see the first Viscount Soulbury, Governor-General of Ceylon from 1949 to 1954, who had been President of the Board of Education in the Churchill government from 1940 to 1941, had taken First Class honours at Oxford, and been president of the Classical Association in 1948. Keyt and Soulbury discussed classical literature in a somewhat ribald manner, to the amusement or embarrassment of any attendant civil servant or ADC.

Keyt wrote poetry in English from an early age. After his conversion to Buddhism, he contributed to the Ceylon newspapers poetry and articles on Buddhist and Hindu themes, and drawings also. However, I have in my possession a small water-colour done about 1927, which foreshadows all his subsequent work, and which seems to have nothing to do with anything except village life, with a perceptible undertone of instability and uncertainty. Keyt was influenced by many kinds of art, particularly by the simple temple paintings of Ceylon and by Indian sculpture, and by the inventiveness of Picasso, but French Impressionism had no effect on him. Nor did the art of China. He was familiar with European art not only from reproductions but also from reading Vasari and from a general knowledge of literature.

Keyt said to me once that he had to admit, with regret, that his work was 'controversial'. He knew that it would not receive universal acceptance immediately. But although he was influenced by changes of fashion, he never sought popularity. If a contradiction can be allowed, he was a gregarious recluse. He had to be the one because he loved people and conversation, and the other because his work demanded private thought, solitude and concentration. In the days when I saw him often, between 1943 and 1953, he had no electricity, telephone, radio and running water, but always seemed well-informed and was a fascinating companion. When he went to live in Bombay in 1947 he was perfectly at home with these modern facilities. He gave them up again when he returned to Ceylon. They were irrelevant to him.

Five books have been published solely about Keyt. The librarian and scholar HAI Goonetileke has listed 78 books, poems and articles by Keyt himself, 69 books and articles about Keyt or referring to him at length, and the catalogues of 25 exhibitions. Keyt never went to Europe, but came to England once, and lived in London for six weeks in 1978. He visited many museums and art galleries, went to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Shakespeare, called at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and made a pilgrimage to Gadds Hill to see Charles Dickens's house.

For a show organised by the Contemporary Art society in 1954, the paintings were selected by Herbert Read and Roland Penrose. Keyt's work has also been shown at the Commonwealth Institute, and in 1982 an exhibition was put on by Patrick Seale at his gallery, now the Sally Hunter Gallery. One quite famous picture by Keyt, Woman with Bird, is in the collection of Anthony Penrose, who inherited it from his father.

After Keyt's death, his body lay in state in the National Art Gallery for two days before the cremation. There were Buddhist rites, the recitation of Hindu gatas, and a requiem mass at the church of St Michael and All Angels. He leaves three wives, Ruth, Manike and Kusum, who, with a number of grandchildren and many friends were present at the ceremonies. An important collection of his work is owned by the George Keyt Foundation in Colombo.

(Photograph omitted)