Saffronart will host a live auction dedicated to Works from the Estate of Francis Newton Souza on 12 September 2019 in New Delhi. Comprising 55 lots spanning the artist’s career, the selection showcases the evolution of Souza’s extensive oeuvre through his drawings and works on paper, chemical alterations, a canvas and mixed media such as an artist’s palette. Our team shares five interesting anecdotes from his life and career.
He was originally named Newton after his father
F N Souza’s father José Victor Aniceto de Souza, also known as Newton de Souza, was an English teacher. He was once described as “a chronic teetotaler” by his son, who said, “On his wedding day, the toast wine was poured over his head as he would not drink it.” (F N Souza quoted in Aziz Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Mapin Publishing, India, 2006) The artist was named after him.
Newton Souza died when his son was just a baby, leaving him in the care of his mother. She added “Francis” to his name in thanksgiving to Goa’s patron saint St. Francis Xavier after Souza recovered from a particularly nasty bout of smallpox, which was a deadly disease at the time. The scars from this illness stayed with him for the rest of his life, at times manifesting in the distorted, futuristic ‘heads’ that he painted throughout his career.
Souza signed his works as “Francis Newton” well into the 1940s, after which he began using the family name Souza.
He was expelled from school twice
A rebel by nature, Souza was expelled from St. Xavier’s High School in 1939 for truancy and creating objectionable drawings; and from the Sir J J School of Art in 1945 for his involvement with the Indian freedom movement.
He was quite proud of this achievement, and said, “I was expelled from the School of Art. I was banished from a secondary school. Shelley was expelled once, Van Gogh was expelled once. Ostrovsky was expelled once. Palme Dutt was expelled once. I was expelled twice!” (Artist quoted in Souza in the 40’s, London: Grosvenor Gallery, 2018, p. 30) This second expulsion resulted in a frenzied period of painting in Goa, during which Souza created nearly 200 works, leading to his first solo show in December 1945 at the Bombay Art Society.
He disliked being restricted by the doctrines of any group
Though he is best known as one of the founders of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, he never remained in one group for a long period of time. He believed that producing works of art for a limited coterie was as bad as painting for the proletariat, and that artists painted solely for themselves. He claimed that he painted “what I want, what I like, what I feel.”
He was also a published writer
After a few years of struggle, Souza found success in London in 1955 with a solo show at Gallery One, and the publication of an autobiographical essay titled “Nirvana of a Maggot” in Encounter magazine. In 1959, a thousand copies of the first edition of Words and Lines by Souza were published by Villiers Publications, with the first 50 copies numbered and signed by the artist.
In the late 1970s, Souza and Vikas Publishing House struck a deal for his autobiography, but the manuscript ran into various challenges – including being seized by the Indian customs and disagreements with the publishing house – and never saw the light of day.
He is the only Indian painter to have had a dedicated room at the Tate Modern
In 2018, Souza’s artworks were showcased at the Tate Modern as part of the exhibition All Too Human: Bacon, Freud, and a Century of Painting Life. Ten of his works – including Crucifixion, 1959 and Two Saints in a Landscape, 1961 – were displayed in a chamber dedicated solely to the artist, making him the only Indian painter to have this honour.
Saffronart’s Day Sale featuring Works from the Estate of Francis Newton Souza will be held at The Oberoi, New Delhi on 12 September 2019. The auction is preceded by viewings at Saffronart Mumbai (till 31 August) and at The Oberoi, New Delhi (6 – 12 September).
Cover image: F N Souza, 1973, StoryLTD.com, 18-19 July 2017, lot 32 (p)