We have enjoyed Lionel Wendt’s photographs for many decades, particularly after the release of the book in 1950 (reprinted in 1995) which is a much-valued publication in anyone’s library. Not many will remember that his was a multi-faceted character – pianist, photographer, critic and cinematographer – not forgetting that as a young boy he went to England to study law (his father was a Supreme Court judge), joined the Inner Temple and was called to the Bar in 1924. He studied music in London and was an accomplished pianist when he returned as a young man of 24.
‘Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon’ carries two articles by two of his close associates – Len van Geyzel and Bernard G. Thornley. The latter’s short article discussed Wendt’s technical skills. The ‘Centennial Tribute to Wendt’ published by the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund in 2000 carried several articles and a collection of his photographs.
A comprehensive life story on Wendt was done by journalist, author, book designer and painter Neville Weeraratne in his introduction to ‘Applause at The Wendt,’ which he edited to mark the 50th year of the Lionel Wendt Theatre in 2003. He has quoted extensively from many who knew Wendt, making a very interesting read.
Van Geyzel, for example, wrote that Wendt had to be an artist and nothing else and only then could his remarkable talents come to play. He was looking for an appropriate medium in which to express the life of people of this country which he found in the art of photography.
Capturing the Sri Lankan way of life
“The proposition that confronted Wendt was that Sri Lanka had a way of life that was very old but which remained, in spite of poverty, squalor and apathy, a vital sense of life. He recognised that here man, living in traditional ways, had not become alienated from his environment.”
Neville W. writes about Wendt’s concern for the people and their traditions: “Evidence of his deep regard for Sri Lanka and its traditions are illustrated in the images he chose to capture with his camera, each being a tiny microcosm of a vast and magnificent tapestry. It was recognised by all those who knew him that Wendt had an endless capacity for work. He focussed on the country and the people with unerring judgement and relentless dedication, and in doing this, he stimulated a new consciousness among them and (juts as pertinent) in some high places.”
He also had a deep appreciation of modern painting, having being familiar with contemporary European developments during his student years abroad. He loved painting. He also wanted most earnestly to see the people of talent developed into serious and mature artists. George Keyt is evidence of this enthusiasm.
Lester James Peiris on Wendt
I found comments by Lester James Peiris fascinating. He describes Wendy as “a large man, a hulk of a man who incessantly smoked a foul brand of cigarette and who wore braces to prevent his trousers from falling off. He had a huge tummy which would shake and roll as he laughed. He was a marvellous speaker. One can only suggest the wit and flavour and the sparkling ironies and, of course, the obscenities which were the funniest part of his conversation.”
Probably one of Wendt’s last surviving friends, Lester JP observes him thus: “He never spoke much about his photography. I expect he wanted his images to speak for themselves and he never spoke of them or about himself. I suppose he was so critical of everybody else that he did not want to expose himself to the same treatment. He did not reveal himself. He was a very interior person. He showed no emotion though he expressed a great passion for things. Perhaps he was hypocritical. That may be why he never chose music as a career. He had no showy technique. This great mountain of a man would sit on the piano stool and show no emotion, no swaying of the body, no flinging of arms. He seemed perfectly cold and scientific.”
Lester was one of the original non-painter members of the ’43 Group, the prime mover of which was Wendt.
Neville W. sums up Wendt: “It was the popular belief that Wendt was a cynic, a highbrow and unsociable, someone whom simple people couldn’t meet, yet Suramba, Ukkuwa, Guneya and Jayana were very much at home at ‘Alborada’.”
The Spanish word for the dawning of the day, ‘Alborada’ is the house he built for himself at 18 Guildford Crescent in Cinnamon Gardens, the home of the Lionel Wendt Memorial Art Centre.
Lionel Wendt died in his sleep after a heart attack on 19 December 1944. He was only 44.