Lionel Wendt, Photographs of Ceylon
Lionel George Henricus Wendt was born of Dutch Burgher background in Colombo, Ceylon, on December 3, 1900. His father was a judge of the Supreme Court and his mother, the daughter of the District Judge of Kandy, the last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka (Ceylon). At the age of five, Lionel was admitted to the Government Training College English School and later entered St. Thomas’ College in Mutuwal. After the death of his father in 1911 and, later, his mother in 1918, Lionel Wendt met George Keyt, who would later become one of Sri Lanka’s greatest modern painters and a strong influence in Wendt’s life.
After completing his studies at St. Thomas College, Wendt traveled to London, and joined the Inner Temple, one of the four Inns of Court whose membership is necessary to study law and become a barrister. Music, also being an early enthusiasm in his life, prompted his to join the Royal Academy of Music where he studied piano under technical pianist Oscar Beringer and Mark Hambourg., the Russian-British concert pianist. Wendt returned to Ceylon as a Barrister with a degree in Law from the Inner Temple.
Although he practiced law for a short time in Colombo, Lionel Wendt’s passion for the arts usurped all other interests, leading him ultimately to pursue a career in photography in the 1930s. Wendt, along with his life-long friend George Keyt, founded the Colombo ’43 Group, This was an association of Ceylon’s artists whose interest in European modernist trends constituted a historical break from Sri Lankan and South Asian traditions, with its use of Ceylonese subject matter in styles appropriated from the contemporary West.
Lionel Wendt’s contribution to modern painting in Sri Lanka was very influential. He made prints of contemporary European artists, along with books from England, available to aspiring artists. He bought paintings by young artists, held exhibitions, and defended them publicly in the newspapers against their critics. Over a period of twenty-five years, the Colombo ’43 Group held many public exhibitions, providing a climate for young painters and atmosphere for an appreciative audience to grow.
Lionel Wendt experimented with solarized prints in photography as early as 1935, one of the earliest uses anywhere of the solarization effect for pictorial ends. Wendt would often enter international photographic exhibitions with two different styles under two different names. He assisted on the production, lending his advice and his voice to the narrative, of the 1935 documentary film “Song of Ceylon”, which won first prize at the Brussels International Film Festival of 1935. He also had in 1935 a one-man exhibition in London of his work, arranged by Messers Ernst Leitz, manufacturers of Leica photography equipment.
Lionel Wendt died unexpectedly of a cardiac asthma heart failure on December 19, 1944, shortly after his birthday. A portrait of Lionel Wendt, wearing a dressing gown seated at a piano, was painted by artist and friend W J G Beling and hangs in the Lionel Wendt Memorial Theater of Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Note: An 2000 article written by Manel Fonseka, entitled “Lionel Wendt: Recovery and Dispersal’, discusses Wendt’s legacy and the safeguarding of his work for the cultural heritage of Ceylon. Printed in the June 18th 2017 issue of London’s The Sunday Times, it can be located at: https://www.sundaytimes.lk/170618/plus/lionel-wendt-recovery-and-dispersal-245924.html
Top Insert Image: Lionel Wendt, “Self Portrait”, Date Unknown, Gelatin Silver Print
Second Insert Image: Wendt, “The Waves No. 2”, Date Unknown, Solarized Gelatin Silver Print, Private Collection
Bottom Insert Image: Lionel Wendt, “Kandyan Torso”, circa 1935, Gelatin Silver Print, 38.1 x 28.3 cm, Private Collection