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Collector-benefactor profile: Who owns Sri Lankan, Canadian, cricketing art—and now portraiture?

Christopher Ondaatje has only recently come to public notice with his donation of £2,750,000 to London’s National Portrait Gallery.

London

Who is Christopher Ondaatje? This was the question on many people’s lips at last month’s opening of the National Portrait Gallery’s (NPG) new wing. It was Mr Ondaatje’s £2,750,000 donation which made it all possible: more visitor facilities, extra gallery space and a spectacular rooftop restaurant.

Although Mr Ondaatje now has his name chiselled into a plaque at the entrance to the NPG’s Ondaatje Wing, he is less well known as a collector. Yet he has quietly assembled a collection of Sri Lankan antiquities and art which is “the most comprehensive outside the country”, according to Robert Knox, Keeper of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum. For Mr Ondaatje, collecting works from the island he left as a young boy has given him back his roots. He admits that “however disjointed, my collection is my past, and talking about it inevitably involves delving into a sad and sometimes turbulent background.”

The range of Mr Ondaatje’s Sri Lankan (and south Indian) collection is broad. Among his many sculptures are ancient terracottas, sandstone works, bronzes, Hindu deities and Buddhas. He has palm-leaf manuscripts, maps and prints, Calcutta School bird paintings, watercolours and twentieth century pictures. In addition, there is Portuguese and Dutch furniture from Sri Lanka, armour, swords and knives, Bidri metal ware, Kanyan silverware and what must be the world’s largest collection of betel cutters (over 800 examples). One of Mr Ondaatje’s latest acquisitions is the Tennent Papers, assembled by James Tennent, who wrote extensively on Ceylon in the mid-nineteenth century. The two volumes of Tennent’s notes and illustrations were bought at Bonhams in June 1999, for nearly £60,000.

Mr Ondaatje’s collection has just been catalogued by writer-artist Neville Weereratne in Visions of an island: rare works from Sri Lanka in the Christopher Ondaatje Collection (HarperCollins). As an enthusiast, Mr Ondaatje admits that he is in a difficult position: a collector is afraid of being thought arrogant if he publishes his collection, “but he has a still stronger fear, the fear that the world will not know that he has a collection worth writing about.”

Canadian painting was his Mr Ondaatje’s first serious interest for collecting, and he began to buy decades ago when he was working in Toronto and Montreal. Five years ago, he donated most of his pictures to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, in Halifax, and these works are now housed in two special rooms. Valued then at $1.5 million, the twentieth-century paintings include Alex Colville’s “Ocean limited”, Tom Forrestall’s “Island in the ice”, Paul-Emile Borduas’ “Composition” and Jean-Paul Lemieux’s “Le découvreur”. Mr Ondaatje also donated $125,000 for the acquisition of a major sculpture by John Greer, “Origins”. Another Canadian beneficiary of his generosity has been the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto, which has received $1 million for a new South Asian Gallery. This is due to open in November. Mr Ondaatje also has a house in Bermuda and this led to a $250,000 donation to the National Gallery in Hamilton, for a room to house its historic collection of Bermudiana.

Mr Ondaatje’s other early interest was cricketing pictures, a reflection of his obsession with the game which developed as a result his English schooling. His collection is now probably the finest in private hands, and includes a group of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings which had belonged to mustard tycoon Sir Jeremiah Colman and had been on loan to Lords, where they hung in the Long Room. Mr Ondaatje is a patron of Somerset County Cricket Club, and it is possible his collection could one day find a home there.

The rest of Mr Ondaatje’s collection is a reflection of his eclectic tastes. At Glenthorpe, his early nineteenth-century manor house in Devon, he has Victorian paintings, along with a Henry Moore marble sculpture of “Two forms”. Among his portraits is one of the explorer Sir Richard Burton in Arab dress by John Phillip, which he bought from a private collector in Australia (one of Mr Ondaatje’s interests is British explorers). His greatest single masterpiece is probably Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s picture of Emma Hamilton, bought four years ago from a British syndicate. He also owns a Gauguin bronze of “Idole à la cocquille”, which he acquired through Sotheby’s. Mr Ondaatje’s interest in Gauguin developed partly as a result of his theory that the artist’s Parisian mistress Annah may have come from Sri Lanka (not Java) and he also finds that Gauguin’s work is reminiscent of the people and landscape of his own native land.

Christopher Ondaatje was born in Ceylon (with seventeenth-century Dutch ancestors) in 1933, the son of a well-off tea plantation owner (his younger brother is Michael Ondaatje, the Booker prizewinner who wrote The English patient). In 1947, when he was twelve, Christopher was sent to Blundell’s, a public school in Devon. At the age of twenty-two, he set off for Canada, with $13 in his pocket, to get into corporate finance, later founding the institutional brokerage, Loewen Ondaatje McCutcheon & Co, and establishing the Pagurian Corporation. In 1988 Mr Ondaatje sold out his interests, abandoning business to devote the rest of his life to his personal interests: collecting and writing. By this time his Pagurian Corporation had liquid assets of over $500 million. He now lives in Britain, where his donations to the arts include the £10,000 Ondaatje Prize, given at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters annual exhibition (last month it was awarded to Leonard Rosoman RA). History and art have become his passions, and these came together in his love of portraiture, making him the ideal candidate to help the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) realise its dreams. He is also a supporter of the Royal Geographical Society, which has just submitted a Lottery application for an ambitious project to expand facilities for the conservation and display of its collection of memorabilia and artefacts relating to exploration.

When did you become a collector?

Christopher Ondaatje I started when I was seventeen, because I was really trying to replace something that I had lost in my life. Until I was twelve I had led a free and privileged existence on a tea estate in Ceylon, before being sent to school in England. Now, I am a collecting addict. I spend much of my time searching, combing through catalogues.

Although your collection is focused on Sri Lanka, why was it so long before you returned there?

It was not until 1990, thirty-eight years after I had last been there, that I finally went back. I had not wanted to return earlier: our family had lost everything there, my parents had separated, things had changed after Ceylon’s independence. It was to lay to rest the ghost of my father that I went back. Interestingly, my brother Michael’s new book, Anil’s Ghost, is also about the period around 1990 in Sri Lanka, when the country was on the verge of anarchy. Since then, I’ve been back many times.

Your collection includes a unique replica of the British Museum’s “Tara”. How did you acquire it?

It is a copy of the goddess Tara, the ninth-century sculpture at the British Museum. The museum recently gave me special permission to have a cast made, and it is the only gilt bronze replica. This image of Tara is widely regarded as the Orient’s finest sculpture.

What will eventually happen to your Sri Lankan collection?

The collection is already bursting at the seams. I want to leave it somewhere where it will be honoured and protected. I would love to give it to the Colombo Museum, but there is a such a turbulent situation in the country. There are other institutions, including the Royal Ontario Museum and a couple in England, which would be keen to house it. The thing about private collections is that they come, and they go. But if you are careful, and plan it, then they have a chance of having a longer life.

You have a Gauguin bronze, but have you ever thought about a painting?

A couple or so years ago I saw a wonderful landscape with figures at the Lefevre Gallery, but it was around $40 million [“Famille Tahitienne”, bought by Steve Wynn for the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas]. Perhaps I should have bought it, but it would have meant selling off my entire collection to buy a single work. I am not sure that I am quite at that stage in my life.

Why did you decide to make the NPG donation?

In 1996 I was travelling in Africa for three months, researching my book Journey to the source of the Nile and often sleeping on a groundsheet in the equatorial jungle. I had a lot of time to think. What if something happened to one? I started thinking of death and religion. Then I got this incredible fear that I had an opportunity to make something happen at the NPG, but I had a responsibility because if I didn't get involved, it might not happen. In a way, my donation was the catalyst for the £16 million wing, because it helped secure a £12 million award from the Lottery.