Provenance: The artist John Napper, Kelly’s studio assistant
‘I had seen some snapshots of Burmese dancers, and so, with the sublime
spontaneous stupidity of youth, I just went off to Burma. How lucky, how
wonderfully lucky, I was.’ (Sir Gerald Kelly, Exhibition of Burmese
Paintings, 1962, Preface).
‘Kelly worked continually in the last months of 1908 and early months of
1909, painting small landscapes and studies of Burmese girls, … but the
Burmese picture most likely to be remembered is one of the dancer Ma Si
Gyaw, begun at Mandalay in 1909 and presented by Francis Howard to the
Tate in 1914.’ (Derek Hudson, For Love of Painting, The Life of Sir
Gerald Kelly, 1975, p. 32.) Kelly’s paintings of Oriental dancers soon
became familiar to the public through popular prints – at one time
amongst the most popular reproductions in Britain. Maugham wrote
enthusiastically of the paintings: ‘his Burmese dancers … have a strange
impenetrability, their gestures are enigmatic and yet significant, they
are charming, and yet there is something curiously hieratic in their
manner; with a sure instinct, and with a more definite feeling for
decoration than is possible in a portrait, Mr Kelly has given us the
character of the East as we of our generation see it,‘ (Somerset
Maugham, ‘A Student of Character‘, International Studio, December 1914).
Kelly painted Ma Si Gyaw about thirty-six times. This painting remained
in his studio until it was inherited by the painter John Napper,
Kelly’s studio assistant.