Keyt with a family brush
By Diana Keyt
The sun was setting when the driver of the car pointed at the strange,
flat-topped mountain. “Pothgala,” he said. “That’s
Bible Rock,” my mother explained.
September 5th would have been my mother’s 100th birthday.
I wish now that I could talk to her and tell her I understand why,
so many decades ago, she drove my sister and me in a hired car over
the mountains to her Daniels relatives in Diyatalawa.
Jansz, my mother, had met Peggy Keyt when they were students at
the teachers’ training school in Colombo. They became friends
and Ruth became acquainted with the members of the original “Forty
Three Group”. One of them my father, George Keyt, fell in
love with her. They were married in St. Mary’s Church in Kegalla
for her family had left the Dutch Reformed Church and had converted
to Roman Catholicism.
my grandfathers had died young. Though my relatives had helped my
grandmother, Connie, to educate her three sons and daughter, my
father had left Trinity College to get a job. Painting was his talent
and Ruth decided that he should have more time for his art. She
took a teaching position at Trinity College and then my father painted
all day in his studio. Our family now consisted of Peggy, my grandmother
Connie and my parents. Peggy taught at Hillwood, Connie had a tiny
pension, but it was my mother who nurtured my father in the early
years before he became the famous George Keyt.
my sister and I were born Ruth took a few months maternity leave
and quickly returned to work. Because our house was so well situated
(next to the Malwatta Vihare) Peggy would just take a few minutes
walk to Hillwood and back and so spend most of her spare time playing
with me. She developed a proprietary affection for us sisters that
became an obsession. Harold Peiris and his wife Leah returned from
Europe with their two little girls. They started building a house
in Kandy with the architect Andrew Boyd. Alas, when the house was
finished, Andrew and Leah left and Harold was left alone with his
daughters. Peggy made her move and suggested that she and Harold
marry. And so they did.
this time a kinsman of the Duke of Bedford, Martin Russell (he was
then a British Army Officer) came into our lives. He saw himself
as a patron of the arts and George Keyt was just the artist for
him. Under Martin’s tutelage George changed his style and
his paintings became quite different. George also started writing
poetry of a vague and incomprehensible nature. Our simple bourgeois
way of life did not please Martin. It is my belief that he disliked
my mother, and urged my father to engage in extra marital affairs
so that his personal Picasso would be more dashing in the European
At all events, when my mother returned unexpectedly early one day
she found my father with Lucia. Immediately she packed up and took
her daughters to Diyatalawa.
with one of my Daniels aunts in the garden when we were astonished
to see Harold Peiris drive up. Arguments and discussions followed
and eventually we were bundled in his car and driven back to Kandy.
When we arrived Harold scooped me up in his arms and carried me
to Peggy. “I’ve got her back!” he announced. Ruth
indignantly repudiated the suggestion that she live together with
George and Lucia. She moved into an empty house (named “Alta”
by Lionel Wendt) with Connie and her daughters.
built a new house for George and his ménage in Sirimalwata.
After a long visit to Bombay where he made important connections,
George became established as a “world famous artist”.
My mother wanted to divorce him and get child support but her priests
told her that she would be excommunicated.
My mother would take me with her every day to Trinity College where
I enjoyed being the only girl in a classroom of jolly boys. Peggy
said that we two sisters should move up the hill to her new house
and go to Hillwood with the Peiris girls. I grew to love Hillwood
with its wonderful curriculum and teachers but had to pay the price
of losing my mother.
was an intimidating woman. She would be jealous when I spent my
free time with Ruth reading my special books, painting and watching
the weavers and hummingbirds build their nests in the honeysuckle.
I irrationally blamed my poor mother and became rude and insulting
when she tried to see us. Most of the things I said, it must be
added, were influenced by Peggy’s remarks.
when the Peiris’ moved to Colombo to educate their sons at
Royal College we girls went along to attend Bishop’s College.
The break with my mother was complete. I watched her tears with
Accepting an empty house from Harold Peiris, my mother was left
alone without her children. She grew old. The house was taken from
her and she lived on her pension in her own tiny house until she
died. I too have grown old. I took all these years to forgive myself
and to forgive my mother.