The first underwater painter in Ceylon

The first underwater painter in Ceylon, it’s hard to believe but this story happened 150 years ago. He used a special submarine to paint underwater life in the ocean…

“…a strong header from the edge of the heavy boat brought me into the depth. Immediately I found myself in the diving bell; cautiously I slid inside and started breathing in the confined space, in which all the sounds had a benumbing echo between the iron walls…” *

This is how Eugen von Ransonnet (1838 -1926) describes his first attempt to dive into the Indian Ocean near Galle in Ceylon. You must admit that this is an amazing story. Especially since it took place over 150 years ago! When I read about it in his book, I knew I had to tell you the story.

It’s October 1864.  After twenty days of a sea voyage from Vienna, Eugen von Ransonnet reaches the shores of Ceylon. He brings with him a diving bell of his own design and intends … sitting in the bell at the bottom of the ocean to paint the underwater world.

No one has ever done anything like this before him. Eugen von Ransonnet is a pioneer of underwater painting.

Who was Eugen von Ransonnet?

Eugen VON RANSONNET was born on June 7, 1838, in Vienna. He showed great artistic talent since childhood. At the age of 12, he became the youngest student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. His greatest love was always art and the sea. However, in the mid-nineteenth century, a descendant of an aristocratic family should have devoted himself to a more recognized profession. So, in 1855 he started studying law and three years later became an official of the Imperial Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Fortunately, the position he took allowed him to travel and continue his own interests.

He took a sketchbook everywhere and used every opportunity to paint. Due to the fact that he was a member of many scientific societies in Vienna, he made contacts with scientists who helped him describe the specimens he had collected. Often there were new species among them.

In 1862, he traveled to Palestine, Egypt, and Arabia. There, he studied Arabic, explored the Red Sea, and collected corals and other sea specimens to create his own collection. During this trip, he sketched his first underwater landscapes. He painted them sitting in a boat and watching the underwater world through the surface of the water. After returning, in Vienna, he began to prepare his own lithographic illustrations for the book about this journey, which was published in 1863.

The underwater world was still tempting Ransonnet, so two years later he went to Ceylon to paint the ocean’s life, but this time sitting at its bottom. This is how his sketches from Ceylon were made.

Diving bell designed by Ransonnet

Eugen von Ransonnet described the project he developed in detail. His bell was three feet high [0.948 m] and two and a half wide [0.79 m]. It was made of sheet metal and weighed approx. 80 pounds (ca. 36 kg) [approx. 45 kg].

At the front and on the roof of the bell were windows made of thick inch glass [approx. 2.6 cm]. Weights placed at four points served to adjust the draft. In the base of the bell, there was a hole through which the diver got inside and an iron rod to sit. The bell was supplied with air through a hose connected to a pump on land or on a boat.

ransonet, Dzwon do nurkowania na Cejlonie
Eugene von Ransonnet, Diving bell designed by Ransonnet, Sri Lanka

The first attempt of the Ransonnet bell,

It is November 25, 1864, Ransonnet rents a heavy boat, similar in shape to European, and six helpers. He chooses a small bay near Galle as the trial site. The diving bell is set in the water and loaded with cannonballs inserted into the net. Then the air supply hose from the pump set on the boat is connected to the bell. By regulating the load slowly the entire device is immersed in deep water.

When a few initial attempts to dive are successful, Ransonnet jumps from the boat and gets inside the bell underwater. Sitting on a rod placed in a stance and started to breathi the air brought from the boat. Then he walks along the bottom watching the ocean life for the first time from under the water. He is fascinated by what he watches and spends 3 hours underwater.

Eugene von Ransonnet, Koralowce ,Galle , Sri Lanka
Eugene von Ransonnet, Corals from submarine, Galle , Sri Lanka

Impressions from the bottom of the Indian Ocean

“eagerly I stretched out my hand towards a coral, but could not touch it, just like a child who tries to grasp things beyond its reach, because in the water everything seems to be so deceptively near and, at the same time, smaller, so that one’s normal sense of distance and size is completely lost.

You soon realize that in the depths of the ocean you need not only learn how to move, but how to see and hear as well.”  *

Ransonnet, Galle, Cejlon
Eugen von Ransonnet, Corrals, Galle, Sri Lanka

 “the underwater landscape gradually lit up, and in the shimmering, emerald-green light, illuminated by the sun, there stretched out before me the sandy seabed, on which the gleam from the playful waves created an interweaving pattern of colourful bands of light.

Here and there, individual groups of coral were growing on the stones in the sand, and a reddish shadow in the distance signalled the area where a twenty foot high and five to six foot thick block of Madreporaria (stony corals) rose up from the depths in a fantastic shape”*

Ransonnet, Galle , Cejlon
Eugen von Ransonnet, Corals, Galle, Sri Lanka

In the background of the scenery expanded a sandy plain, which glinted in clear emerald green through the crystal bright water.

In the distance a rock jutted out to the surface, but further away everything was blurred in a maroon shade. Bit by bit the fishes – the butterflies of the sea – which first kept away began to swarm around me, who could describe their enchanting colours, when the glow of the waves swept along their fluorescent scales.” *

Eugen von Ransonnet claimed that no one before him had done something similar. Therefore, he should be considered a pioneer of underwater painting, and his project as unusual.

Underwater painting method

The atmosphere of the underwater world Ransonnet described colourfully and illustrated by paintings. Sitting underwater, he sketched with a pencil on special varnished paper – his own invention. The colours to his initial sketches he added after diving.

Ransonnet wrote:

“I used a greenish-coloured varnished paper, which allowed me to draw on it with a soft pencil even when wet. The finished sketch was put into a tin box and transported out of the bell by diving; a second layer of varnish kept the sketch from being blurred, finally it was coloured with transparent oil paint.”*

His sketches from Ceylon faithfully reflect the smallest details of illustrated objects and take us into the magical underwater world. It’s hard to believe, but it was 150 years ago when Eugen von Ransonnet was diving in the submarine in Indian Ocean near Galle.

He never repeated the diving bell test again. Still, he was looking for new techniques for observing the underwater world.

His book describing also his impressions from Ceylon and contains several illustrations of the island life. He was particularly fascinated by it’s exotic nature. Here is a short quote from his book:

“Nothing can be more charming than a morning walk in the immediate neighbourhood of Galle.

The roads , which are kept in excellent repair, are generally of a reddish hue , and lead across paddy-fields of the brightest green, and under dark masses of trees mixed with coco nut and areca palms, plantains and bamboo, which gracefully bend their shady branches over the path.

Numerous small birds and butterflies add brightness to the foliage and large lizards (Monitor), from three to four feet in length, enjoy their doIce far niente in the morning-sun.”**

Ransonnet, Szkice z Cejlonu
Eugen von Ransonnet, Nature of Cejlon (Sri Lanka)
Ransonnet, Szkice z Cejlonu (Sri Lanka)
Eugen von Ransonnet, Banyan Tree near Colombo (Sri Lanka)


*Ransonnet-Villez,  E. (1868): Ceylon, Skizzen seiner Bewohner, seines Thier- und Pflanzenle- bens und Untersuchungen des Meeresgrundes nahe der Küste

** Ransonnet, E. (1867): “Sketches of inhabitants, animal life and vegetation in lowland and high mountains of Ceylon as well as of the submarine scenery near the coast, taken in diving bell by the Baron Eugene de Ransonnet”

Title picture:

Wikimedia commons

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