The Lionel Wendt Art Centre In conversation with Anu Weerasuriya

Behind the lenses of monochromatic images, and behind the rumors and acclaim, who was Lionel Wendt? In her essay "Rediscovering Lionel Wendt" (1996), Manel Fonseka states that throughout the nineteen thirties and forties, Wendt was a staunch defender of the modern movement, by writing, giving occasional public talks, organizing exhibitions and encouraging and patronizing the younger painters and that above all, he was a stimulating purveyor of modern artistic ideals. In fact, in July 1935, together with B.G Thornley and P.J.C Durrant, Wendt started the Photographic Society of Ceylon, for the advancement of the art and practice of photography amongst the amateurs in the island, which to date functions from the Lionel Wendt Art Centre, built upon the artist's home "Alborada”, now managed by the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund. In conversation with Anu Weerasuriya, Hon. Trustee, of Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund, we explore the role the board of trustees have taken on to celebrate the vision and works of the legacy. 

Q | How would you describe Lionel Wendt? 

A | A large man of extraordinary largesse. Rotund and burgeoning out of his trousers which were often held up by braces, his artistic creativity, his intellect, wit and skill with the spoken and written word, his generosity both in kind and spirit, coupled with his technical abilities made him an amazing individual.  

During a five-year stint in the United Kingdom, Wendt, the son of a Supreme Court judge, trained as a barrister, and in music under the much renowned Oscar Beringer and Mark Hambourg. Hambourg believed that his student could become a concert pianist. However, Wendt chose to return to Ceylon. 

His career as a barrister came to an end very quickly when Wendt reputedly took umbrage at a comment cast by a judge at the beard that Wendt was growing and walked out of court never to return. He went on to defy the norms of society once  again by turning to, what was looked upon as “women's work” – play the piano and teach music. An English singer, Jane Conrad ("He never taught, he revealed”, The Times, 14/2/1970) describes him as, “a wonderful pianist with a fine technique” and says that “it was never his own brilliance that he was concerned with but the beauty of the music”. Speaking of her own experience, she writes “without knowing that I was being taught he lifted me onto quite a different plane.”

He broke new ground with music, shocking audiences attuned to Beethoven and Chopin by playing contemporary work of Ravel and Poulenc and delighting in the boogie woogie. He was fascinated with the dancers and drummers of Kandy.  Not only did he take stunning portraits of the them, he contributed towards a school of Kandyan dance and was instrumental in including the gajaga vannama played by drummer Suramba in Basil Wright's 'Song of Ceylon.'  

As a photographer too he excelled. “A photograph by Wendt is not merely a record of a fact; it is also a state of mind, a point of view, expressed on double-weight bromide with luscious gradation.” (Janus, ANCL Archives, 3/2/1940). He was a master of technique - at the keyboard, with the camera and in the darkroom. Working with great determination and diligence to produce perfection, he practiced repeatedly at the piano, and experimented with his camera and lighting effects, producing prodigious numbers of prints until he was satisfied with the result. This technical skill, together with his intellect, his creativity, his energy and love for the craft, produced inspiring music, and the photographs which are unmatched to this day. 

He dabbled with caricature and painting, but other than designing his programme covers and the like; he felt he was not up to standard as a painter. The photograph became the medium through which he expressed his own creativity, while he furthered his interest in painting by encouraging the talents of other artists, kindling their passions by purchasing their work. Exposed as he was to the emerging trends in Europe and Asia, he also had an appreciation of the history and art, architecture and music of his home country. Breaking new ground was the norm to him, and he inspired his coterie of artists to sever connections with the colonial trends of the day and paint what was indigenous to their souls – not according to any accepted type, form or culture. An affluent man of means with good organizational abilities, he financed and mounted exhibitions of several artists, including one in 1932 of artists as disparate as George Keyt, Justin Deraniyala and W.J.G. Beling. His patronage of artists culminated in the establishment of the '43 Group. In contrast to the accepted genre of that era of staid artworks in pastel shades, the group's first exhibition was a mass of contrasting and vibrant styles, exotic colour, striking nudes and a sculpture titled "Beetle with Dung Ball"! 

“A man of warm, intense enthusiasms and small hatreds—it was always a joy to hear him venting his wrath on little incapacities or pouring out his appreciation on new discoveries, particularly in the realm of photography. But his mordant sarcasm and impatience with mediocrity and pretence were always counterbalanced by his great personal kindliness and his unfailing encouragement of artistic ability wherever he found it. He would stoop to fan the smallest spark of talent to a white flame where so many would have trodden on it and passed on.” (H.V.C., Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon, Vol XXXIV, No 4/4/1945). 

In his short life, his adult life being a mere 23 years, he achieved more than the average man does in a lifetime changing the warp and weft of the artistic fabric of this country forever. It continues to evolve with the Art Centre built in his memory providing space for photographers, artists, sculptors, dramatists, musicians and performers of every sort, of every background and every community, both local and international to showcase their talents, not only to express their own artistic creativity but also as a means of inspiring the citizenry of this country. 

Q | Can you tell us the transformation story of Alborada, Lionel Wendt's home? 

A | The Lionel Wendt Centre for the Arts stands on the grounds on which Lionel Wendt built his home called Alborada. In the foundations of Alborada he buried, a copper casket, which to quote his words, “contains this writing, for a symbol of my loves and my desires that are bound up in the house that will with good fortune rise above these foundations.” The closing words on this scroll read, “May this house prosper. May all honest endeavor in the service of Beauty flourish therein and win its reward of inward content and the Peace that is only in ceaseless effort.” (A copy of this piece of writing was donated to the Lionel Wendt Archive by William Mackie.) 

“Lionel Wendt never lived in an ivory tower but in a small house accessible to all, lovers of the arts or lovers of the people.” (Harold Peiris, 'Rebel with a cause', Observer, 26/6/1970). Photographer Reg van Cuylenburg (The Green Stick: A Memoir, 2015) talks of visiting Wendt at home and describes walls lined with Klee and Miro, Braque and Chirico, and bookshelves spilling with volumes of Caravaggio, Goya, and Nabis. He was a young boy at that time, and awe-struck by Wendt and the rooms of Alborada, he asked if he could come again. Wendt had invited him to come every day and make himself at home. 

Alborada was demolished in 1950 to build the Lionel Wendt Memorial Centre for the Arts, comprising primarily of the theatre which was opened in 1953 with a performance of Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths directed by Neumann Jubal. The Art Gallery was opened in 1959 and the balcony to the theatre was added in 1972. The Harold Peiris Gallery opened in 2000, paying tribute to the man who devoted his time, energy and funds to setting up the Centre. Peiris and the Wendt brothers were close friends and he was the executor of their wills. 

Q | How does the Trust, celebrate the spirit of Lionel Wendt in its undertakings? 

A | The Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund (LWMF) is a Trust incorporated in 1949, for the purpose of preserving and perpetuating the legacy of Lionel Wendt. This legacy is not confined to preserving his photographs only, but extends to the ideals that he believed in and was actively practiced. This has been the mission from the inception of the Board of Trustees of the Lionel Wendt – to support the arts and make the Centre a place where beauty flourishes. 

The Centre for the Arts has been THE stage and hall for thousands and thousands of performances and exhibitions, launching careers and showcasing cutting edge theatre and music of all communities of this island. It has also been the venue of many international artists, both visual and performing. More importantly, it has become the much-loved home of artists and performers. 

S.H. Hoffman (The Island, 28/12/1984) sums it up as follows: “He was an artist to the marrow. The torch he lit is still being kept aflame.” 

Q | Tell us about the recently launched Archive, and its function. 

A | The Archive of Lionel Wendt and the Centre for the Arts works towards collating information and material on Lionel Wendt and the Centre built in his memory. The core of the Archive is the LWMF Collection of Lionel Wendt Photographs, one of the few large collections with clear provenance which can be traced back to the bequests of Lionel Wendt himself, his brother Harry and Harold Peiris. 

The Archive also includes audio-visual material (including specially filmed oral history interviews), ephemera and publications relating to Wendt, as well as material pertaining to the history and events of the Art Centre and the artists who have performed and exhibited at the Centre. The LWMF Archive records, which will help tell the story of the origins and functioning of the Trust and the establishment of the Centre, the minutes of meetings and architectural plans, etc., as well as exhibition and performance catalogues are being digitized and information collated. 

The Archive and the newly revamped Website ( was launched on 3rd December 2020 to commemorate Wendt's 120th Birth Anniversary. The Archive is an ongoing project with new artefacts being sourced for it continuously. The Website includes selected material from the Archive and those who have been regular visitors to the website would have noticed that new material is added weekly.

The LWMF will be grateful for any relevant material such as Lionel Wendt's photographic work, books, music scores, press cuttings, articles, magazines and other publications and documents with his work or references to him as well as exhibition and theatre performance catalogues, reviews and any other memorabilia.  Any references to Harold Peiris and others who were closely associated with Lionel Wendt and the Centre will also be of great use to the Archive.  

Q | Will there be a point at which Lionel Wendt Photographs will be on display for public viewing at the Lionel Wendt Memorial Arts Centre?

A | The Trust intends to have a Museum and a Gallery dedicated to Lionel Wendt wherein artefacts from the Archive and a specially curated rotating selection of photographs from the LWMF collection will be displayed. 

Anu Weerasuriya, Hon. Trustee, of Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund is also the Managing Director of Studio Times Pvt Ltd, and has contributed and produced several publications including Eloquence in Stone: the Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka. Anu has played a significant role in the unveiling of Lionel Wendt's life and works as a Trustee of the Memorial Fund and has contributed greatly through setting up the Archive on Lionel Wendt and the Centre for the Arts. The Lionel Wendt Memorial Art Centre has been the place of many transformations during which visual and performance artists of varied genres found acceptance and reverie. Over the past decades, the Art Centre has been the spirited spur of an artistic renaissance initially braced and supported by Lionel Wendt himself, an artist of boundless reverie. 


18th February, 2021 Applied Art