Rohan De Soysa

A walk into the living room of Harry Pieris’ home in Barnes Place, Colombo, which he bequeathed along with his art collection, furniture and library, to the Sapumal Foundation, transports one to a bygone era of wondrous living. All the walls of the home are adorned by artworks, over three-hundred of them, mainly of the ’43 Group. These give an insight into the minds and musings of the great art masters themselves. The spatial arrangements, furnishings and ambiance of the home epitomize a simple but unique style of living of which the spirit of the space is best understood by an understanding of Harry Pieris himself. 

Harry Pieris was born on the tenth of August 1904, the eighth of ten children. His formal art studies starting at Royal College, Colombo continued at Mudaliyar A C G S Amarasekara’s Atelier School of Art, the Royal College of Art in London and finally in Paris under the tutelage of Robert Falk. He thereafter worked at the Tagore Abode of Peace in Shanthiniketan for about two and a half years before returning to Ceylon at the age of 34. He looked after his family’s properties, developing an abiding interest in agriculture and gardening, as can be seen from the Sapumal Foundation Garden. He was a person of simple elegance with an eye for beauty. His understanding of art was further enhanced by visits to the USA in 1953 and to China in 1957.

Ivan Peries and Richard Gabriel, founder members of the ‘43 Group, were his pupils. Harry Pieris was made the Honorary Secretary of the `43 Group when it was formed and remained so throughout. Prior to the formation of the collective, the artists used to meet at Lionel Wendt’s house, ‘Alborada’ in which he had buried a scroll which read “All honest endeavour in the service of beauty can flourish and win its reward of inward content and the peace that is only in ceaseless effort”. This was one of the guiding principles of the ’43 Group. When Lionel Wendt, who was its inspiration, nucleus and guiding force sadly passed away one year or so after the `43 Group was formed, it was Harry Pieris who took on that role.

In 1974, Harry Pieris felt that he should establish something of a more permanent nature so that the public could view good art and be enriched thereby. As Margaret Gooneratne observed, “Harry in his understated yet determined way was convinced that the advantages he had inherited, received and gained must be shared with a wider range of people. It was a responsibility that made him restless. In such thinking the Sapumal Foundation took firm and adventurous root”. So, he formed the Sapumal Foundation, with two close friends, Dr Christopher Raffel and Dr Arthur Weerakoon as trustees. The main purpose of the Foundation is to preserve the collection for the benefit of posterity and to advance the cause of art by this and other means. Harry Pieris’s home, which he inherited from his mother, is one of simple elegance. Originally it was three workers’ cottages, whose connecting walls were knocked down, and converted into this fascinating and rambling place. It is a veritable Ali Baba’s cave of art, where each room has a distinct character, so it is never monotonous.

The Sapumal Foundation collection consist of works by all ten core artists of which this edition of ARTRA Magazine, ‘The Instinctual Works of the ‘43 Group’  Edition 63 explores a selected collection chosen by Azara Jaleel that reflects upon the spiritedness of the artists, and their artistic chemistry within their works that collectively bring out the instinctual, especially of love, truth, beauty, form and spirit. 

Harry often acted as a benevolent patron to artists in need of encouragement or funds or both. When Lionel Wendt’s Collection was auctioned to build the Lionel Wendt Memorial Art Centre, he bought many works to enhance his own collection. The significance of the Sapumal Collection is that it is the only collection open to the public, which has authentic examples of all of the core artists of the Group as the `43 Group is one of the topics in the Advanced level GCE Art Exam of Sri Lanka. Students studying art can therefore view this collection and enhance their knowledge of the Group. The uniqueness of this collection is that it has been put together by an artist who had an intimate knowledge of each artist, and is housed in what was the meeting place of the Group in all authenticity. Thus, it is of historical significance that may well be the only one of its kind in the world.

To quote Professor S B Dissanayake, “The house and garden, both extensions of Harry’s personality, became over the years part of a permanent interior decor for me which included the people and objects I cared for most. Every (new) face in my life entered into this decor at some time or another. I went to Harry’s house to see afresh, to learn of beauty and find it confirmed. My first memories of the mingled scents of flowers and painted canvases in his studio, the trees in his garden, lemons, jasmines, atteriyas, brunfelsias, with their scented shadows are still fresh. To pause and look at what Harry has surrounded himself with is in itself a creative act requiring an effort. His garden, house, the paintings in his house, register his whole experience of life. He has,as it were, formulated that experience in entirely visual terms for everyone to see”. 

Ellen Dissanayake, his wife, embellished these thoughts, “There is nothing of the museum in his house, nor is there anything that could be described as ‘interior decoration’ – rather it is a delightful and comfortable clutter of odd pieces of furniture, books and vases and carvings and ceramics and photographs and other memories collected over a lifetime. What I feel in his house and in his presence is an atmosphere of timeless gentility and fineness that miraculously still clings, though I know that just as it has disappeared in America and elsewhere in the West, here,too, it is rare and evanescent”. 

Among my own fondest memories are the simple Sunday tea-time salons he had, attended by a variety of people; artists, poets, writers, friends, relations, intellectuals, and an occasional Buddhist monk. The lively discussions ranged over a myriad of topics, from art, through politics, philosophy to zoology, with Harry Pieris chipping in with occasional relevant comments. Another is of the times he invited me for delicious homecooked lunches. We had many chats, mainly about art, crafts, temple-murals, theosophy, philosophy and so on, on a one-to-one basis. Once I accompanied him to collect books bequeathed to him by a good friend, Len van Geyzel. I went in my Fiat 124 station wagon, in which I had travelled overland, since the back seats could be folded to hold more luggage. So he loaded some in the old vehicle he had, and I loaded the rest in mine, until the back of my vehicle almost touched the ground. 

Harry Pieris invited me to be a trustee of the Foundation in 1981. So we met often to discuss Sapumal matters. I, perhaps unconsciously, imbibed much of his ideas of the way to keep it going. Chief among these was to do so in an unpretentious way and also to be attentive to the welfare of the staff. Both my predecessor, Mr L S D Pieris and I have tried to follow the attitudes of Lionel Wendt and Ananda Comaraswamy in all our undertakings, emulating Harry Pieris, especially an insightful quote from Coomaraswamy – ‘Art contains within itself the deepest principles of life, the truest guide to the greatest art, the art of living’.


15th October, 2022 Applied Art | Interior