At times art cannot be fully understood or appreciated unless an account is taken of certain fundamental artists. Gamvasi Senarath Fernando was one of them. In most of his works the three letters G.S.F. was endorsed and was familiar and known to every art lover. Beside being the chief exponent of the type of painting known as ‘picturesque’ he was responsible for removing the deeply rooted prejudice which insisted that the function of art was to represent man since by its nature art was ‘the work of man.’
G.S. Fernando chose instead to devote himself to landscape painting in water-colour, almost to the exclusion of all other forms of art and it was in landscapes that he sought the values of man. Almost everything he had done as a water colour artist and the way in which he has done it have origins which can be clearly traced by the influence of the master water-colour painter Russell Flint, An Englishman who lived in London in the 1920s. William Russel Flint was reputed as a genius in water-colour painting for landscape and human figures.
G.S. Fernando was born on February 2 1904 in Suddhagoda in Bentara. His father’s wish was to make him an Ayurvedic physician. At the age of 12 he brought his son G.S.F. to Colombo to study medicine under the tutelage of a well-known Ayurvedic physician who was a friend of his father. He also made arrangements for him to study medicine in the morning hours and the evening to attend Pali and Sanskrit classes at the Vidyodaya Pirivena at Maligakanda, Colombo. He had to walk to the Pirivena passing the Tower Hall theatre, Maradana. His eagle eyes caught the beauty of a curtain painting done by Richard Henricus a well-known Sri Lankan artist reputed for drawing murals in both Christian and Buddhist contexts and in curtain painting for the Tower Hall theatre. G.S. Fernando became a friend of Henricus and learnt the rudiments of drawing and painting. By this time G.S.F’s interest in learning medicine and pirevana education receded. He became an assistant to Richard Henricus. But Henricus did not keep him long under his care. Richard Henricus was wise enough to recognise G.S.F’s ability through the medium of painting. He took G.S. and apprenticed him to M. Sarlis a well-known graphic and a commercial artist who had opened up an art studio in the heart of Colombo.
G.F.’s duties at this art studio afforded him the spice of variety. He designed greeting cards, made pictorial decorations for book covers, turned out art work for advertisements and many more. Very soon G.S.F.’s name became known islandwide as an excellent commercial artist. The G.S.F. circle contained a number of book lovers, authors, and poets, such as Piyadasa Sirisena, Hemapala Munidasa, Martin Wickremasinghe, W.A. Silva, G.B. Senanayake and U.A.S. Perera (Siri Aiya) to name a few, whose book covers and illustrations were designed by him.
During this period an Englishman named Morgan, head of the commercial department of the Times of Ceylon Newspapers sent for G.S.F. As a result of this meeting G.S.F. was made the main artist of the Times Group Newspapers in 1933. Here he met Aubrey Collette the excellent political cartoonist and built up a good rapport. After sometime when Collette joined Lake House Group of Newspapers, G.S.F. became the chief cartoonist in the Times group of newspapers. D.B. Dhanapala, who himself became a power in the newspaper world then Editor of the Lankadeepa recruited G.S.F. as the Chief Artist. Apart from illustrations to this paper he did the daily political cartoon. His subjects were mainly politicians, people in pubic places and tackling social evils, satire and comment on social political aspects, which sustained a sense of humour in the reader.
Once Sir John Kotelawala the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka was so impressed by G.S.F’s caricatures of him, invited G.S. to his Kandawela residence for a egg hopper feed and a handsome prize in cash. Amid this variety of work G.S.F. grew in repute as an illustrator of picture stories. He did a picture story called ‘Neela’ appeared in the Sunday Lankadeepa which became very popular especially among children. ‘Neela’ was the first picture story published in Sri Lankan newspapers. It opened the door for other newspapers to start a series of picture stories. Not only as an artist he was the art director of the first Sinhalese film produced in 1925 named ‘Rajakiya Wickramaya’ unfortunately it got destroyed to a fire in a studio in India.
He held many art exhibitions in Sri Lanka, and his best works have been exhibited in foreign countries. Most art lovers liked G.S.F’s Water-colour technique. Even my paintings are considered similar to his. It’s obvious that I happened to be his pupil. From the bliss of his marriage he had four children. The eldest son become a gynaecologist., the daughter became journalist, the second son was consultant optometrist and the youngest daughter a science teacher. G.S.F. had his pet method in drawing the female figure in water-colours, which worked best. He was reputed in giving life to women on canvas. The village damsel sporting local village attire (cloth and jacket) which revealed several inches of bare midriff carrying a pot of water tucked to her belly, woman bathing in the river semi dressed, a tantalizing figure of a woman dancer, bring splender visuals from his brush. G.S.F. loved nature and his favourite town in Sri Lanka was Kandy.
Very often he made week-end trips with me to Kandy, driving his Morris Minor to do painting. He loved outdoor painting and many trips were done to his favourite places with me. He also had a hand in oil painting and scraper board work.
Long ago a beautiful wall calendar was put out by a reputed private firm with his oil paintings. His scraper board work consisted famous personalities as Anagarika Dharmapala, D. S. Senanayake, dancer Niththawala Gunaya and Kataragama festival.
I was privileged to study under one of Sri Lanka’s finest water-colourists G. S. Fernando whom I consider as my ‘guru; (teacher) and I shall always feel a sense of gratitude and loyalty to him. Once I was working on a overseas contract for a government concern I received a letter from my ‘guru’ in his own hand writing. His letter read “Let me see my pupil ‘Tissa’ before I die”.
The letter was dated August 26, 1988. This letter is a treasure and so precious to me and kept as a collector’s item. He had a tremendous affection for me and considered me as his trustworthy loyal pupil. He died in 1990 at the age of 86. His position in the history of water-colour painting is unique. One can only add after his name G. S. Another ‘G’ – genius.
Compiled by Ranjith Daluwatta