Images of a distant paradise

Visions of an Island
January 12, 2001

It will look, I fear, a little like arrogance in a private man to give a printed description of his villa and collection," wrote Sir Horace Walpole in his preface to Strawberry Hill (1784). Quoting the remark in his preface to this book about his own collection, Christopher Ondaatje comments frankly: "The collector is afraid of being thought arrogant if he publishes an account of his collection; but he has a still stronger fear - the fear that the world will not know that he has a collection worth writing about." Walpole is a singularly appropriate source for Ondaatje because, as is well known, he coined the word serendipity, after reading a fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip , in which the heroes "were always making discoveries by accidents and sagacity of things they were not in quest of". Serendip is the old name for Ceylon, today's Sri Lanka, the home of the Ondaatje family (originally from India, then part-Portuguese, part-Dutch and part-English by intermarriage); and "serendipity" is how Ondaatje likes to imagine his collection of objects associated with his native land to have been built up in the past half century.

Ondaatje is probably best known in Britain for his philanthropy, including a major gift to the National Portrait Gallery, which has named its new wing after him. Although born in Sri Lanka, he was sent away from the island as a teenager just before independence, was brought up for a while in England, and has spent most of his adult life in Canada, where he created a multimillion dollar business in corporate finance and publishing from scratch - and then sold it, in the late 1980s, in order to pursue a career as an explorer and as a writer (like his younger brother Michael). His books on Africa, India and Sri Lanka have established him among present-day travel writers for their combination of history, science and personal drama, illustrated with his own striking photographs.

Visions of an Island contains very little writing by Ondaatje himself. But his unique, cosmopolitan stamp is all over this gallimaufry, including the elegant design and production. Only he could have thought to pursue parallel obsessions with medieval images of the Buddha and Hindu gods, colonial Dutch furniture, prints of colonial English life, 19th-century natural history paintings and contemporary art and sculpture, not to mention an important collection of maps of Ceylon from all periods and a vast array of knives and swords - to single out but a few of the book's many sections. Two things provide unity: Sri Lanka, and the personality of the collector. "I suppose the whole collection mania was to surround myself with everything historical, beautiful, that reminded me of where I came from or where really I belonged." There is a poignancy here: his father's tea business collapsed after he had sent his son to England in 1947, leaving the boy stranded and penniless; his father sank into dipsomania (as vividly described in Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family ); and father and son never met again. Indeed Ondaatje did not return to Sri Lanka for about 40 years.

More than most collectors, his quest for objects has been a search for his roots. He says: "II am an easterner who has become (of necessity) a westerner. But I have never been able to get my eastern roots out of my system. Nor do I want to." For as a 14th-century ambassador travelling from the Vatican to China via Ceylon famously remarked: "From Ceylon to ParadiseI is forty leagues" because from there "may be heard the fountains of Paradise".

One is reminded of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, the leading scholar of Indian art in the 20th century, whose father was from Ceylon and whose mother was English. Coomaraswamy spent virtually his entire career in western art institutions (until his death in 1947), but he was a passionate critic of the debasement of eastern artistic taste by colonialism. He is quoted many times in this book, for example: "Of English influence on purely Sinhalese art, the less said the better. It is characterised, from the English side, by almost complete indifference to indigenous culture... From the Sinhalese side, the history of the 19th century has been one of continual and snobbish imitation of the external features of western culture, misunderstood and misapplied."

There is no gainsaying the contrast in quality between the more ancient objects in the Ondaatje collection and many of those from the colonial period - especially, I am afraid, those created during the period of British rule, as opposed to that of the Portuguese or the Dutch. The British-period objects, however, have their own historical value and fascination. And Ondaatje - who is happy to call himself a "colonial" - is at least as interested in history as in art for art's sake. This is not a book for purists. "Not for him the chaste group of impressionists, exquisite Renaissance bronzes, Chinese porcelain or Old Master drawings," remarks Robert Knox, the keeper of oriental antiquities at the British Museum, in a brief introduction.

The concluding section on 20th-century Sri Lankan art and sculpture is especially significant, given that there are comparatively few collectors in this field. Ondaatje has many works by the so-called '43 Group, who broke away from the rigid rules of the Ceylon Society of Arts in 1943. The bucolic paintings of Richard Gabriel, the group's only surviving member, are an Ondaatje favourite, but he rightly judges Justin Daraniyagala to be the finest of the group. Daraniyagala's Blue Nude, painted in Paris in 1929, provokes a characteristically personal reminiscence that when he was recently taken to hospital for a serious operation, he looked around at the things he treasured most - in case he would never see them again: "When I looked at the Blue Nude , I was engulfed by an enormous wave of sadness. I have to admit it is the painting I love the most." On the basis of a photograph of the writer Anais Nin he happened to see, serendipitously, in 1995, Ondaatje is convinced that the portrait is of her; Nin is known to have worked as a model in Paris in the 1920s, and posed for Picasso. One cannot escape the irony that this much-cherished, highly sensuous work was created by a Sri Lankan artist working not in Ondaatje's magical Island, within earshot of the fountains of Paradise - but in the artistic capital of the western world.

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The THES , is the author of The Art of Rabindranath Tagore .

Visions of an Island: Rare Works from Sri Lanka in The Christopher Ondaatje Collection

Author - Neville Weereratne
ISBN - 0 9999 0483 3
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £50.00
Pages - 223

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