Waugh and the Sri Lankan Cubist

The Deccan Chronicle, an English-language paper based in Hyderabad, has published an article about a 20th century Sri Lankan artist little known in the West. This is George Keyt (1901-1993) who is described as a cubist, influenced by the works of Matisse and Picasso. A book about his life and works is about to be published in Delhi. This is Buddha to Krishna by Yashodhara Dalmia. The Chronicle’s story explains the Waugh connection:

 “Keyt chose to live quietly in a village, away from the bustle of the city,” says Dalmia. Despite his attempts at solitude, no trip to Sri Lanka was deemed complete without Keyt’s residence being paid a visit. “He was alone, but never isolated. Anyone who visited Sri Lanka went to see him, he was a true icon, in that sense.” The visitors included actress Vivien Leigh, who bought his paintings, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who later wrote, “Keyt I think is the living nucleus of a great painter,” and the British writer Evelyn Waugh, whose account (a letter to his wife) has been recorded in Dalmia’s book.

Waugh’s visit took place in 1954 during the visit to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) on which he suffered the breakdown fictionalized in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. The letter referred to in Dalmia’s book is undoubtedly the one to Laura Waugh dated 16 February 1954 in which Waugh describes a visit he made with Monroe Wheeler (a director at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) to

a most eccentric local painter who lived in a very clean house with dozens of cheerful pictures by himself–half folk-art, half Picasso. He had nothing in the house & and had to send out for three cigarettes and a box of matches. (Letters, p. 420).

The identity of the eccentric artist is not revealed in Mark Amory’s edition of Waugh’s collected letters, and Dalmia’s research may be of use to future editors. Whether Waugh may have acquired any of Keyt’s works is not recorded in his published letter.

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