As soon as you enter the premises at 32/2 Barnes Place in Cinnamon Gardens, you will be overwhelmed by the Bohemian atmosphere. Immediately beyond the entrance gate you step into a different time period. Some lovely small buildings in Sri Lankan architecture have been converted into a workshop for children. It’s a joyful scene to see toddlers full dedication creating their own works of art. It once used to be the staff quarters for the Peiris family, who were residing in a huge villa at the end of Barnes Place. As the family found the villa too big for them, they decided to turn the staff quarters into their new, much smaller residence. In later years their son, the late famous Sri Lankan painter Harry Peiris, used to live in this cozy place together with his mother and after she passed away it became his own residence and the meeting place of the ’43 Group’, founded by Lionel Wendt, another very famous Sri Lankan artist (see Lionel Wendt Theatre). Harry Peiris had collected a large collection of paintings, mainly from artists belonging to the 43 Group, such as George Keyt, Ivan Peries and Geoffrey Beling. In fact, the ‘Art Gallery’ is the home of the artist, decorated with lots of paintings on the walls amidst the furniture from his time when he used to live here. It is a fascinating natural fusion of a living space and an art exhibition, rarely being seen anywhere; no cords that separate the furniture from other items, no bills mentioning ‘do not touch’. It makes this lovely house a place where Harry could walk-in any moment and invites you for a Whiskey Soda.
The collection of approximately 300 pieces of art is fascinating. It’s a mixture of styles from an era of breakthrough in Sri Lankan Art. Traditional portraits of well-to-do Sri Lankans are exposed among brilliant cartoons and contemporary painting. Some typically inspired by some impressionist painters like Gauguin. Reading this, one might think that it could be a bit full with all these painters on the wall, but it isn’t disturbing at all.
Harry Pieris collected a considerable number of some 800 pieces of art in his life. He was the secretary of the 43 Group and thus a great art lover and wanted to see his collection being brought under the umbrella of a foundation. The trust was founded in 1974 and called the Sapumal Foundation, derived from the word ‘sapu’, meaning ‘a flower that partly blossoms’; it was his nickname, given by his artistic friends, who thought he had not fully used his artistic potential. As he could appreciate their judgment, he acknowledged that Sapumel would be the name of his new foundation.
The 43 Group, so called because it was founded in 1943, may be considered as a protest art movement against the establishment of traditional art lovers and painters. Sri Lanka, at that time called Ceylon, was a British crown colony and the colonizers set the trend in the ‘high society’ in those days. Colonial executives and the wives of planters had established a firmly controlled highly conservative arts club, the Ceylon Society of Arts, which closely monitored the art scene. Without permission of this club it was almost impossible to expose one’s work at a gallery. New experimental forms of art were bluntly rejected by the club. A similar situation occurred earlier during the last decades of the 19th Century in France, which had led to the Impressionist movement, whose participants regularly came together in the cafes at Montmartre in Paris.
The 43 Group was a gathering of artists consisting of George Keyt, Justin Daraniyagala, Ivan Peries, Harry Peiris, Geoffrey Beling, George Claessen, Aubrey Collette, LTP Manjusri and Richard Gabriel and clearly a protest movement against the Ceylon Society of Arts. It was an initiative of Lionel Wendt and all these modern artists, except for Harri Peiris, were rejected by the Ceylon Society of Arts. Meeting point was at Harry Peiris’ residence, while Harry also became the secretary. Unfortunately Lional Wendt died in 1944, shortly after the establishment of the group. Whenever a painter was accepted by the group, he was free to exhibit the work of art he had chosen, the group did not interfere in the choices. The group consisted of Sri Lankan members only, there were no colonizers in the group.
Some members, like George Keith, became very old, who died in 1992. A great achievement of him was that he managed to get the works of some of the 43 Group exposed in London, Paris and at the Biennale in Venice in 1952, which has brought Sri Lankan art finally on the world stage.