Painters and Poets: Ribeiro and Rosenberg

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DATE 2024

Painters and Poets:

Lancelot Ribeiro and Isaac Rosenberg

‘Although my father later wrote of his acute sense of frustration at being unable to write with the same ease with which he painted, I feel that the sensibility of the poet is woven through his life story since those early Bombay days.’

Marsha Ribeiro, Retracing Ribeiro - The Poet © Marsha Ribeiro

‘Beneath the Star of David, the carved inscription on his headstone reads - ‘Artist and Poet’finally resolving in death the creative dilemma that had both inspired and perplexed Rosenberg throughout his creative life.’

Sarah MacDougall and Rachel Dickson, ‘Isaac Rosenberg the Painter, Part II: ‘Shaken and Shivered’’ in Whitechapel at War: Isaac Rosenberg and his Circle (London: Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, 2008)

Lancelot Ribeiro (1933-2010) is known best as a painter, however his initial ambition was to become a published poet. As his abstracted, expressive paintings of Bombay and Goa propelled him to international acclaim in the early 1960s, Ribeiro’s poetic ambitions acceded to his artistic success. Nevertheless, he continued to write, and his poetry provides insight into the various sources of his work: his Catholic upbringing, experience of migration between India and Britain, and literary influences.

The synergy and tension between Ribeiro’s poetic and artistic production recalls the biography of an older artist, also held in the Ben Uri Collection: Isaac Rosenberg (1890–1918). Having trained as an artist at the Slade School alongside names such as Mark Gertler and David Bomberg, Rosenberg ultimately failed to find success as an artist, joining the army for reliable income. Already known for his poetry at the Slade, the poems Rosenberg wrote as a soldier have immortalised him as one of the greatest poets of the First World War, relegating his artistic production to relative obscurity at the time.

Poetry aids an understanding of the rich internal landscapes of both artists, from Ribeiro’s cryptic, metaphysical verse, to Rosenberg’s vivid war poems and use of biblical imagery. Although shaped by different cultural contexts, Ribeiro being Goan-Catholic and Rosenberg Anglo-Jewish, both use mystical poetic registers that negotiate bleak and existential themes.

‘In a review of his 1961 Bombay exhibition Ribeiro listed the types of portrait heads he painted at the time as: ‘colonialists, kings, tyrants, Christ (resurrected), tycoons, women and thugs’’

Ben Uri Collection/ R. Parthasarathy, ‘Restless Ribeiro’ (2013)

Lancelot Ribeiro, King Lear (1964)

Image credit: Ben Uri Collection

Ribeiro’s poem ‘A Soul’s Calling’ (c. 1960s) evokes Shakespearian soliloquy with its existential questioning, exploring themes of mortality and the passage of time. This association is affirmed by his iconic painting King Lear (1964), referencing the tragic play by Shakespeare in which a tyrannical but short-sighted king is forced into exile. Ribeiro seems to combine the figure of the exiled king with that of a mocked Christ: the jagged crown reminiscent of a crown of thorns.

At the same time, the painting represents Ribeiro himself:

‘An extract from an article on Ribeiro’s 1965 Hampstead exhibition related the following encounter:

‘Looking curiously at a painting of a man with a long, lopsided face, a distorted mouth and a strange coloured complexion, I asked the artist what it was. ‘A self portrait’, he answered!’’

Ben Uri Collection/ R. Parthasarathy, ‘Restless Ribeiro’ (2013)

Looked at alongside King Lear, ‘A Soul’s Calling’ highlights Ribeiro’s interest in themes of faith, exile, and temporality, and the way he combines religious, literary, and autobiographical influences.


(For Ana Rita)

And then, No realm further than that of the Dark?

Is it the dark that ends all purpose?

Shadow that leads and follows

During the time of day?

Perhaps, for time alone.

Shall it cease all deliberation?

The customed soul for good or evil

Share a common doom

That does the body, by the gnawing worm.

To have been, and done. And now, to be undone?

Time our betrayer!

Leaving an apocryphal code.

Must I abide this casuistry

Of a season and era, That tosses creed and belief

To the sea of myth and fancy?

And lays our carcass by the hill

To which we affix suitable labels.

Roll the tombstone of antiquity aside!

Arise! The voice from the vastness of Dark

Bring forth thy word from mummy kings Wrapped.

Unwind and spiral

Through hollow centuries.

A voice emerges from the catacomb of the mind.

c. 1960s

Credit: Retracing
Ribeiro -
Marsha Ribeiro

In ‘Returning, We Hear the Larks’, the horrors of war are briefly suspended, as birdsong greets the soldiers with the affect of a Biblical miracle. Rosenberg’s verse takes on the musicality and ‘strange joy’ of the larks’ song, perhaps evoking the comfort that poetry may have given him during this time. As well as writing his now-famous war poems, Rosenberg continued to draw, until he was killed while on patrol in 1918.

Image credit: Ben Uri Collection

Returning, We Hear the Larks

Sombre the night is:

And, though we have our lives, we know What sinister threat lurks there.

Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know This poison-blasted track opens on our camp— On a little safe sleep.

But hark! Joy—joy—strange joy.

Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks: Music showering on our upturned listening faces.

Death could drop from the dark

As easily as song—

But song only dropped,

Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand By dangerous tides;

Like a girl’s dark hair, for she dreams no ruin lies there, Or her kisses where a serpent hides.


Credit: Poetry Foundation

Isaac Rosenberg, Self-Portrait in Steel Helmet (1916)
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