Collection of Martin Russell Esq.
Martin Russell is unanimously credited as the foremost patron of Sri Lankan cubism whose tireless efforts towards the propagation of the art form is responsible for its astounding reception and popularity as it stands today.
Russell was born in to a wealthy business family in England. From his early youth, he was exposed to the visuals arts by his mother, who was a collector of modern art in her own right. In 1937 she is known to have sat for a portrait by Henri Matisse.
Russell was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge. In 1940, he was appointed as the private secretary to Duff Cooper, then Minister of Information. He accompanied Cooper to Singapore where they were responsible for reporting on the coordination of the numerous British Government departments in the Far East. Subsequently he was employed by the British Army in Colombo and Kandy from 1942 – 1945. It was in 1942 that he met the Ceylonese photographer and critic Lionel Wendt, and was inspired by the Impressionist and post- Impressionist artists who founded the '43 Group in Ceylon. This collective was a school of modern mid-20th-century painting in Sri Lanka, whose principal contribution was the absorption and adaptation of the modern movement in Europe, and their application of this to their contemporary Sri Lankan experience. One of these artists was of course George Keyt, whom he met at the opening of the inaugural exhibition of the ’43 Group in November 1943:
“At the time I did not quite understand Keyt’s work. Because it was so non-European, but another member of the ‘43 Group, George Classen… pointed out to me that Keyt’s work had a ‘poetic’ quality. The word ‘poetic’ used by Classen has been embedded in my memory since. I bought all the Keyts in the show, except one…” (Y. Dalmia, ‘Martin’s Journey,’ Buddha to Krishna: Life and Times of George Keyt, Routledge, London and New York, 2017, p. 124)
Having discovered this group of artists, Russell began collecting their works extensively. Later in 1943, Russell was transferred to the Allied Land Forces Headquarters at Kondesalle which was close to Amunugama where Keyt lived. The two developed a strong lifelong friendship. Eventually Russell bought his own house near the Keyts which he kept for a long time even after his return to England.
Russell was more than just a collector. A man of great intellect, in his time in Sri Lanka and subsequently India, he gained extensive knowledge about Hindu Iconography. On the request of Dr. Mulk Raj Anand, the editor of the Bombay art magazine Marg, Russell wrote a book on Keyt who was at the time also living in Bombay. This was released in 1950 and to-date remains the seminal publication on the artist.
In 1953, Russell returned to England and became an investment banker. His love for Sri Lankan art however continued and he sought to promote it in Europe. He was instrumental in organising many exhibitions in London, Oxford, Cambridge and Paris and served as a benefactor to artists such as George Claessen and Ivan Peries when they visited England. In more recent years, in the new millennium, successful sales from Russell’s collection in international auctions helped to launch widespread interest in 20th- century Sri Lankan Art.
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