A celebrated doyen of the arts in Ceylon
Lionel Wendt

A central figure of cultural life and founder member of the Colombo ‘43 Group of Sri Lankan artists

A name that is synonymous with the arts, Lionel Wendt bequeathed a legacy to Sri Lanka that is unsurpassed. A pianist and photographer of great repute, Lionel Wendt was a founder member of the famed ‘43 Group, a coterie of talented artists who set the stage for the arts in the island. His talent in photography earned him international accolades. A Barrister from Lincolns Inn, London, Lionel Wendt’s passion for the arts usurped all others. A lasting tribute to him is the eponymous Lionel Wendt Theatre which has served Sri Lankans for generations. Lionel Wendt was the ultimate renaissance man of his era, arguably responsible for creating a modernist movement in the country.

Compiled by Tina Edward Gunawardhana with the kind permission of the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund

Family lineage

Lionel George Henricus Wendt was born in Colombo on December 3rd 1900. He was of Dutch Burgher background. Wendt’s father was a judge in the Supreme Court and his mother, the daughter of the District Judge of Kandy. Wendt’s family were educated, affluent and socially distinguished. Lionel Wendt had only one younger brother named Harry.

Early education

At the age of 5, Lionel Wendt was admitted to the Government Training College English School and later he went to S. Thomas’ College in Mutuwal which then shifted in 1918 to Mount Lavinia. When Lionel Wendt was barely 11 years old, his father died and seven years later his mother too passed rendering Lionel and Harry orphans. While he was mourning the loss of his parents he met George Keyt who later on became a great influence on Lionel Wendt. Amongst the upper echelons it was customary to send their children overseas for studies and after completing his studies at S. Thomas College, Lionel Wendt travelled to London and joined the Inner Temple to study law.

Wendt the pianist

Music was an early enthusiasm and during his time as a law student, Lionel was able to join the Royal Academy of Music where he cultivated his knowledge of music. He learnt from some of the best exponents such as Oscar Beringer, Mark Hambourg and Gerald Moore. Wendt’s career in music could not prosper as he found insufficient the interpretative role of the concert pianist. He did however create opportunities for young musicians. After studying both music and law, Wendt returned to Ceylon as a Barrister with a degree in Law from the Inner Temple.

The artist within

Although not much is written about his ability as a painter, Wendt’s contribution to modern painting in Sri Lanka cannot be overstressed. It was he who made available to aspiring artists prints of contemporary European artists, along with new books, from England. He bought paintings by the young WJG Beling, George Keyt, and others, organized exhibitions, and defended these publicly in the newspapers with witty and incisive replies to hostile critics and suspicious, uncomprehending viewers.

A photographer of repute

It is in the sphere of photography that Lionel Wendt excelled. Photography had been a childhood hobby of Wendt’s. He happened to pick a cheap camera somewhere for a couple of rupees and soon he was clicking away with the abandon of a happy amateur. The more successful results he would send to his friend George Keyt who worked at that time in a photographic studio in Kandy to be enlarged. Wendt emergesd as an artist of the highest calibre. He did this with the camera exploiting a multiplicity of techniques and devices to craft images of lasting integrity. He did this superbly, with ingenuity, seeing beneath the surface of an ordinary image subtleties of light and shade, of line and mass; in fact, demonstrating a notion held by Picasso that in every photographer there was a painter eager to be released.

International acclaim

As would be expected of an energetic photographer, Lionel Wendt sent photographs to a number of international exhibitions. His prints were on display in London, Paris, Brussels and a number of other cities in Europe. Wendt did not enter exhibitions as a matter of course but more to satisfy his belief that his standard was high enough for the particular exhibition which he considered the best in photographic appreciation. The reasons behind Wendt’s photographic success were the same as those behind his success in other matters. A very great power of concentration and continued application until complete memory was won. He would spend weeks on the consideration of each photograph working out every detail on rough paper before even loading his camera. It was not unusual to come upon him in some crowded place squinting into a view-finder, wide brimmed hat thrust back, glasses pushed up a on a profusely sweating forehead and having to be constantly wiped- somehow a characteristic gesture – quite unmindful of curious passers by. Wendt’s achievements in photography alone are extraordinary. He experimented with solarised prints as early as 1935, which was perhaps one of the earliest uses anywhere of the solarisation effect for pictorial ends. In 1938, Messrs Ernst Leitz, manufacturers of Leica, arranged a one-man exhibition of his work in London. His book of photographs, Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon (London: Lincoln’s Praeger, 1950) with a first edition of 5000 copies, is now a prized collector’s item.

The Founder of the 43 Group

He was also the founder member of the ‘43 Group whose members included George Keyt, Manju Sri, Justin Daraniyagala, and Harry Pieris. Fellow member, artist George Classen described Wendt as a brilliant conversationalist, a profound thinker, a true humanitarian and one who made an ungrudging offering to the world. The ‘43 Group which essentially introduced and maintained modern art in pre- and post-independence Ceylon was the creation of Wendt, whose organizational skills brought to actual realization the half-intentions and good ideas of the artists. Although Wendt died a year after the ‘43 Group held its first exhibition, no-one disputes the catalyzing effect of Wendt at its inception. In fact, as late as 1955, eleven years after his death, a snidely dismissive newspaper review of the ninth ‘43 Group exhibition claimed that “everywhere that Lionel Wendt the lambs were sure to go” – implying that it was Wendt’s influence, energy, and prestige that gave the group its cohesion and life.

Wendt and the Song of Ceylon

Wendt and Keyt had developed affection for dancers Suramba, Ukkuwa and Guneya Yakdessa of Nittawela who were also the subject of Wendt’s camera. In 1934 the British Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board engaged John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit to produce a film about Ceylon as a public relations enterprise. The resulting picture, Song of Ceylon, went on to receive first prize for documentary at the Brussels International Film Festival in 1935, and is given accolades in all accounts of documentary film history. The film is remarkable for unusual uses of the soundtrack as well as the imaginative montage and pictorial effects of director-cameraman Basil Wright. In response to a question about the extent of Wendt’s contribution to the film, Wright stated “Without him I don’t think ‘Song of Ceylon’ could have been what it is.”
The Patron of the arts

Lionel Wendt was largely responsible for organizing groups devoted to music, painting, photography and even Kandyan dance. In his autobiography, Memoirs, Chilean poet and diplomat to Ceylon, Pablo Neruda wrote that: “Lionel Wendt, who owned an extensive library and received all the latest books from England, got into the extravagant and generous habit of every week sending to my house, which was a good distance from the city, a cyclist loaded down with a sack of books. Thus, for some time, I read kilometers of English novels, among them the first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published privately in Florence.” Neruda also noted that Wendt “was the central figure of a cultural life torn between the death rattles of the Empire and a human appraisal of the untapped values of Ceylon.” The homes of Lionel and his brother Harry were Wentworth and Alborado, both on Guildford Crescent. Wentworth was sold to raise funds and Alborado was demolished to make way for the Arts Centre. This task was carried out by friend and fellow ‘43 Group member Harold Peiris. The Lionel Wendt Art Centre was opened in 1953 with a production of Maxim Gorky;s Lower Depths directed by Neumann Jubal.

The Renaissance man

Lionel Wendt’s contribution to the arts in Ceylon is immeasurable. His capacity for work endless. His interest in the arts ranged from painting, music, dancing and photography which he excelled in. He sacrificed time which meant much to him to keep alive the spark of artistic ability struggling to keep itself alive among the young whose talents called out for fostering. Among the musicians and the painters were photographers, poets and playwrights whom he would defend placing his own reputation on the line. Lionel Wendt was a man arguably responsible for creating a modernist movement and one who shaped the arts in Sri Lanka. He was a true embodiment of a renaissance man.