By David Robson

Udayshanth Fernando Collection, Colombo

Growing, 1900-1924 

Lionel Wendt was born into a prominent Dutch Burgher family, the son of Henry Lorenz Wendt (1858-1911), a Supreme Court Judge, and Amelia de Saram  (1875-1918). He grew up in ‘Went(!)worth’, a large house in Guilford Crescent, and was educated at St. Thomas’s School in Mount Lavinia. 

In 1919 he travelled to London and spent the next five years training as a lawyer and studying piano at the Royal Academy of Music. During this time, he kept in touch with the latest developments in painting, literature, theatre, cinema and photography as well as music. And, like so many of his generation living in the shadow of the First World War, he became increasingly drawn to ‘modernism’. 

Musician, Critic, Impresario, 1924-1932 

In 1924 he returned to Ceylon, a reluctant lawyer and an accomplished pianist.  With his wide range of interests, he broke out of the Burgher bubble, rubbing shoulders with a broad cross section of Colombo society and acquiring a reputation as a wit and raconteur. A rotund figure with round black glasses, he invariably held up his sagging trousers with braces and wore a broad rimmed floppy hat.

Both of his parents had died before he went to London, leaving him financially secure and releasing him from the need to earn a living. His legal career was short lived, and over the next two decades he played an increasingly important role in the cultural life of Colombo as a musician, a critic and an impresario. 

Much admired for his piano playing, he became an active member of the Colombo music scene and helped to organise concerts of contemporary and classical music. He gave regular piano recitals both as a soloist and as an accompanist and offered private piano lessons. 

An avid reader, he was an accomplished writer who delighted in playing with words and was a regular contributor to local newspapers.  He became a close friend of the poet Pablo Neruda who was the Chilean Consul in Colombo at the end of the 1920s. Neruda would later recall that Lionel Wendt owned an extensive library that‚ “every week he would send to my house a cyclist loaded down with a sack of books.” He wrote that Wendt “was the central figure of a cultural life torn between the death rattles of the Empire and the untapped values of Ceylon.”

One of his closest friends from childhood was the artist George Keyt and, through him, he got to know a number of the more radical painters of the day, including Geoffrey Beling, George Claessen, and Justin Deraniyagala.  He became an outspoken supporter of their work and, in 1930, organised a controversial exhibition of paintings by Keyt and Beling.  By the same token he was a fierce critic of Colombo’s art establishment and later in the same year courted more controversy by lambasting a travelling exhibition organised by the Royal British Society of Arts for its ‘dreary insignificance’ and by supporting a boycott of the Annual Art Club exhibition. He later organised a second show for Keyt and Beling in 1932 and a provocative exhibition of paintings by Keyt and Deraniyagala in 1936. 

Alborada – A Return to Photography 

In 1930 Wendt finished building a house for himself next door to the family home in Guilford Crescent and christened it Alborada or Daybreak. He wanted it to become a meeting place for artists and musicians “wherein all honest endeavour in the service of beauty might flourish.”

Soon after moving in, he acquired a cheap camera and started once more to take photographs. His friend George Keyt was working at the time in a photographic studio in Kandy and Wendt sent him his negatives to be developed. What started almost as a diversion quickly grew to be a major preoccupation. He continued to play the piano, write newspaper articles and organise exhibitions, but he devoted more and more of his time to photography.

Wendt’s father had been a keen photographer and was a co-founder of the Amateur Photographic Society of Ceylon. He had presented his son with his first camera and took him regularly to visit the professional studio of A.W. Andree. The young Lionel’s skill as a photographer can be seen in the portrait of his friend George Keyt that he made when he was seventeen.

However, he seems to have stopped taking photographs when he moved to London, though it was in London that his interest in the visual arts was aroused. That interest, not born of any talent for drawing, was fuelled perhaps by an innate visual sensibility, and it may be that his sudden return to photography at the beginning of the 1930s was inspired in part by an ambition to channel this sensibility into something tangibly creative. 

As with everything else that he did, Wendt threw himself wholeheartedly into his photography. He equipped himself first with a small Rolleiflex camera and then with a Leica.  Within a couple of years, he had established a studio and darkroom in his new home.  He bought the latest equipment, he subscribed to a range of journals, both technical and creative, he sought the advice of professional photographers in Colombo and he made at least two exploratory trips to Europe.  

The Scope of Wendt’s Photograhic Work 

It's astonishing that Wendt's entire photographic legacy was produced during the twelve short years between 1932 and his premature death in 1944, and that it embraced such a wide range of subject matter and such a variety of techniques.

He quickly developed a very high level of technical competence and perfected the art of making very large prints of near flawless quality. This was all the more remarkable for the fact that he was operating at the very periphery of the world of photography and working under conditions of tropical heat and humidity without the benefit of air-conditioning. 

He kept in touch with the latest developments in Europe and experimented with new techniques such as montage, reversal, brom-etching and solarisation. He was much taken by surrealism and he became an admirer of the work of Man Ray. Using montage, he created dreamlike scenes reminiscent of the painter De Chirico. 

It was as if Wendt was on a mission to photograph as many facets of life in Ceylon as possible: he recorded landscapes, both natural and man-made, life in villages and towns, traditional crafts, ancient ruins, medieval temples and colonial architecture. His photographs of people included formal studio studies of male and female nudes, more naturalistic shots of people going about their daily lives and portraits of people drawn from every corner of society.   

Having established his own dark room in Alborada, Wendt raised his levels of ambition and skill with astonishing speed and by 1933 he was taking part in local exhibitions and submitting examples of his work to shows in Europe and America. In 1935 when his friends B.G. Thornley & P.J.C. Durrant set up the Photographic Society of Ceylon he lent his active support and became a founder member. Thornley was a director of a commercial company called Carson Cumberbatch that had a warehouse overlooking the Beira Lake and it was there that the Society established a base and held its annual exhibitions. Wendt acted as a mentor to aspiring photographers and was always happy to share his knowledge. He participated in almost of the Society's exhibitions between 1935 to 1944.

As well as submitting work to numerous exhibitions in Ceylon and around the world, Wendt held two significant one-man shows during his own lifetime. The first was in the Camera Club in London in April 1938 and was sponsored by the camera manufacturer Leitz. It comprised fifty-four large-format prints mounted on card and included male and female studio nudes, portraits and studies of people at work. The exhibition was generally well received, though the critics' interest was directed more at Wendt's technical skills than at his subject matter. 

The second took place in the Colombo Art Gallery in 1940 and was given the title 'Camera Work', a title that aptly expressed Wendt's approach. It comprised an astonishing two-hundred-and sixty-seven prints that covered a wide range of subject matter, including detailed studies of the Sigiriya frescoes and the Embekke temple near Kandy. It also contained a number of his more experimental works that used techniques like montage and solarisation to create surreal compositions. While many critics focussed on Wendt's subject matter, the painter Justin Deraniyagala singled out the powerful influence of modern painting on his work, stating that he had “reached a standard which has not yet been paralleled by anyone in this country!”

Chitrafoto, 1938 to 1941  

In 1938 Wendt was invited by D.R. Wijewardene of the Lakehouse Newspaper Group to set up a photographic studio in the Lakehouse Building. It was given the name Chitrafoto and its mission was to supply photographic material to Wijewardene's newspapers, though Wendt's ulterior ambition was to develop it into an international photo-agency. Wijewardene gave him a free hand and a generous salary and he managed the studio for the next three years. Responding to a growing interest in photography amongst the public, Wendt produced a fortnightly column in the Observer newspaper giving tips on photography and showcasing the work of a number of photographers. 

He also produced three issues of the Observer Pictorial Annual, a magazine that appeared each December. Under Wendt's editorship it came to resemble Picture Post, a British magazine that had first appeared earlier in 1938. Each issue contained photographs in a variety of formats, some by Wendt himself and others by his friends and colleagues from the Photographic Society. Photographs were generally grouped thematically and often appeared as photo-essays. 

The 1938 issue carried two of Wendt's long photo essays: one had the title 'Men at Work' and showed everything from a lamp-lighter to postal workers; the other was entitled 'Sea Coast Drive'.  

The 1939 issue carried a long piece by Wendt's friend, the architect Andrew Boyd, entitled 'Houses by the Road', a children's cartoon strip by artist George Keyt entitled 'Ten Reasonable Rhymes' and a detailed study of lacquer craftsmen at work. The 1940 issue carried a Wendt photo-essay entitled 'Northern Journey' which included haunting shots of Jaffna landscapes. 

Critical commentary on Wendt's work has focussed on his exhibition pieces and has ignored his photo-journalism. The Observer Pictorials offered a visual record of every-day life and, as their editor and principal photographer, Wendt deployed the same cool objectivity as in his exhibition photography.  His pictures were clearly composed but they were rarely contrived: Wendt wanted to show you what you might have seen had you been there beside him.   

The outbreak of World War II led to a shortage of newsprint and photographic materials that affected newspaper production. Wendt's photographic column was discontinued and, affected by bouts of ill-health, he stepped back from Chitrafoto which continued as a run-of-the-mill photographic studio. 

Spotty Collection, Battaramulla

The '43 Group 

Went was in close touch with a number of the more significant painters of the day. In 1941 he met the young painter Ivan Peries and, impressed by his energy, bought one of his paintings. Peries and his friend Aubrey Colette had hatched the idea of forming a group of progressive artists and turned to Wendt for support.  Peries worked feverishly to persuade a number of painters to come together. Neither George Keyt nor Justin Deraniyagala, the pre-eminent painters of their generation were natural 'joiners' and it took Wendt's persuasive skills to bring them on board. A first meeting was hosted at Alborada in August 1943 and the group adopted the name 'The '43 Group'. Its members included Ivan Peries, George Keyt, Justin Deraniyagala, Geoffrey Beling, George Claessen, Richard Gabriel, Aubrey Colette, Harry Pieris and the Buddhist monk Manjusri, with non-painter Lionel Wendt acting as its driving force. At first sight they seemed to be a disparate bunch, but what united them, aside from the centripetal force of Wendt, was their opposition to the stultifying influence of the Ceylon Society of Arts. At a moment when Ceylon was moving inexorably towards independence, their ambition was to develop new art-forms in a modern spirit that would celebrate its past whilst offering a vision for its future.  

The group's first exhibition, held in November 1943, was said by the Times of Ceylon to open up 'new paths in art' and hailed as 'the most important event in Ceylon art for many a long year.' But this triumph was followed a year later by the tragedy of Wendt's untimely death.  

Harry Pieris, the nominal secretary, then took over Wendt's coordinating role and the Group continued to meet and to hold exhibitions for another twenty years. However, without Wendt, it failed to develop a coherent philosophy and achieved little more than the individual achievements of its members. Keyt and Deraniyagala became the leading painters of their day and enjoyed international recognition but became increasingly isolated, while Peries and Claessen moved to Britain and Gabriel and Colette moved to Australia. Interestingly, with the exception of Manjusri, all of the original members were of mixed ancestry, were nominally Christian, and were English speakers. And they were all men!  

It fell to Harry Pieris to keep the spirit of the '43 Group alive. In 1974 he established the Sapumal Foundation and turned his bungalow in Barnes Place into a gallery to show off his extensive collection of '43 Group paintings and photographs. Since his death in 1988 the house and its contents have been administered by a trust and are open to the public.  

Death, 1944 

Lionel Wendt died on 18 December 1944 after suffering an asthma-related heart attack.  He had spent the day in his dark room printing a batch of photographic Christmas cards, and it's possible that the chemical fumes precipitated his death.  

Soon after his death, his friend Bernard Thornley destroyed his entire collection of photographic negatives in the belief that this was standard practice when a photographer died. The main beneficiary of Lionel's will was his brother Harry, but he died a year later and their joint estate passed to a trust that was administered by their friend Harold Pieris. In accordance with their wishes, the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund was established with the aim of creating Colombo's first centre for the arts. Wentworth was sold and Alborada was demolished to make way for the new buildings. These were designed by Geoffrey Beling and contained a six-hundred-seat theatre and offices and darkrooms for the Ceylon Photographic Society. A second phase containing an art gallery was added ten years later to designs by the British architect Jane Drew with Turner Wickremasinghe of Edwards, Reid and Begg acting as the executive architect. 

‘Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon’, 1950

In 1950 Wendt's friends Len Van Geyzel and Bernard Thornley published a book of his photographs under the title 'Lionel Wendt's Ceylon'. This was intended to be the fist of three volumes, though the other two never saw the light of day. 

It contained one hundred-and-twenty-six prints organised in groups under the headings: 'Landscapes', 'Types', 'Nudes', 'Buildings and Ornaments', 'Fantasy' and 'Heads'. Wendt, of course, had no hand in the selection and organisation of prints or in the choice of the captions. Nevertheless, the book accurately conveyed a sense of the scope and quality of Wendt's work and offered a potent record of his achievements. 

Lost and Found 

A large collection of prints was unearthed in Wendt's home whilst it was being demolished to make way for the new Arts Centre. Their precise number and status remain unclear, though there must have been well over a thousand. For one reason or another, they were not considered suitable for inclusion in the main collection of prints that was held by the Memorial Fund. Some of them had appeared in one or other of the previous exhibitions, some were duplicate prints, some were trial prints but many were prints of previously unpublished images. They were carefully packaged at the behest of Harold Pieris and passed to Bernard Thornley for safe-keeping. Thornley, a director of Carson Cumberbatch, transferred them to the warehouse on the Beira Lake which had served as the base for the Photographic Society of Ceylon. Thornley retired to Cyprus in about 1955 and died there a few years later. Meanwhile the photographs lay forgotten in the warehouse until they were discovered some forty years later by a businessman who was renting a part of the warehouse. He is said to have chanced upon a group of watchers who had opened one of the packages and were ogling photographs of nude men and women. Realising that these were photographs by Lionel Wendt, he persuaded the watchers let him take some of them. 

News of the discovery then reached the ears of a Carson director who had the whole cache removed to his home. The entire collection was then put up for sale for a reported RS. 3 million, but there were no takers. The Memorial Fund was approached, but the trustees were suspicious and were worried about issues of provenance. At one point the beneficiaries of the Wendt estate considered taking legal action to prevent the sale and recover the prints, but nothing ensued. 

Over the next ten years, prints were sold off in small batches to a number of private collectors, both in Sri Lanka and abroad. The biggest buyers were two collectors from Delhi who, acting through a local intermediary, are said to have acquired between them several hundred prints. Another foreign buyer was a Dutch gallery owner who dealt in homoerotic photographs. Three local collectors also acquired substantial numbers of prints.

Unfortunately, the full extent of the Carson-Cumberbatch cache is not known: no list of the prints or record of sales was made. A large proportion of the Wendt prints in existence today, well over half, have come from the cache, but their precise provenance has never been established. Furthermore, the exact status of the prints remains in doubt – were they made by Wendt himself or by an assistant? Were they duplicates or rejects? The prints have now been dispersed: many are in private collections, some now hang in public museums such as Tate Britain, some have been shown in public exhibitions in Japan and Holland.  

Later Exhibitions and Publications 

A memorial exhibition with one-hundred-and-seventy-five of Wendt's prints was held in Colombo in 1946 and a show was staged at the Asia Institute in London in 1950 to coincide with the publication of 'Lionel Wendt's Ceylon'. After 1950, however, interest in Wendt's work subsided.  

A second memorial exhibition showing work of the Photographic Society members was held in the newly completed art gallery of the Memorial Arts Centre in 1959 when, astonishingly, even though none of Wendt's prints was exhibited, some were offered for sale. This was followed in 1967 by the equally astonishing sale of Wendt's private art collection, which resulted in the dispersal of a unique body of work by members of the '43 Group. 

A surge of interest in Wendt's work in the mid-1990s coincided with an exhibition in Colombo sponsored by Deutsche Bank which showed prints that had been selected from the Memorial Fund's archives. The excellent catalogue contained the first iteration of Manel Fonseka's essay 'Rediscovering Lionel Wendt' and she was also responsible for the invaluable cross-referencing of the captions.

Sales of prints emanating from the Carson-Cumberbatch cache were held at the Barefoot Gallery in 1996 and the Gallery Café Gallery in 1999, thus continuing the process of dispersal. 

In 2000 a major Wendt retrospective was held in the newly opened Harold Pieris gallery of the Memorial Art Centre to mark the centenary of Wendt's birth. This was accompanied by a new edition of 'Lionel Wendt's Ceylon' that contained an additional one-hundred and twenty-nine prints drawn from unidentified sources and a new iteration of Manel Fonseka's essay 'Rediscovering Lionel Wendt'.

Three years later, 'The Gaze of Modernity', an exhibition of sixty-six Wendt prints, was held in the Fukuoka Asia Art Museum in Japan. These were hitherto unpublished images which had come originally from the Carson-Cumberbatch cache. They offered a fresh view of Wendt's work with a broad cross-section of subject matter that included nudes, both male and female, portraits and experimental prints. The catalogue included a new essay by Manel Fonseka entitled 'Lionel Wendt and Sri Lankan Modernism' which emphasised Wendt's role as a pivotal figure in the evolution of a modern movement in Sri Lankan art.  However, Fonseka also used her essay to convey her deep disquiet about the provenance of the photographs in the exhibition and about the continuing dispersal of Wendt's photographic legacy. 

In 2017 the same collectors joined together with the Ton Peek Gallery of Utrecht to stage an exhibition in Huis Marseille Museum in Amsterdam. In this case, however, the selection of the pictures and the manner in which they were presented gave exaggerated prominence to Wendt's male nudes which accounted for at least a third of the one-hundred-and-forty-two prints on display as well as the two displayed on the cover of the catalogue. 

One of the three texts in the catalogue discussed Wendt's work almost exclusively in terms of his sexuality.  George Keyt was quoted as saying that homosexuality was 'Wendt's driving force'. In fact, this was a misquote taken out of context and came via Ian Goonatilleke who reported Keyt as saying: 'He was always in a state of conflict, and homosexuality, though a driving urge, did not satisfy him.'Wendt was indeed homosexual but his sexuality was perhaps more nuanced, or more conflicted, than the catalogue implies and male nudes accounted for a relatively small part of his oeuvre. Indeed, he also produced a number of very beautiful female nudes, and many intimate portraits of a wide variety of people. One suspects that he would have preferred to be remembered as a photographer who happened to be homosexual, and not as a homosexual photographer. 

Wendt’s Legacy 

Lionel Wendt was many things - a lawyer, a talented musician, a writer, a critic, an educator, an impresario – and he left his mark in many places. But it is as a photographer that he will be remembered. 

His surviving photographs were made within a period of twelve years and, with very few exceptions, were all taken in Ceylon. They provide us with an astonishing panorama of the island and its people during the final decades of more than four centuries of foreign colonial rule.   

And yet, as one of the people-in-between, he belonged neither to the colonisers nor to the colonised, but was himself a product of colonisation. He enjoyed the benefits of a European education but he was deeply affected by his Ceylonese roots. 

It is this sense of being neither-but-both that seems to set him apart. He was cosmopolitan and yet he was provincial; he was both European and Asian; he was a modernist and yet he steeped himself in tradition, he was objective and yet sentimental. 

Wendt died just four years before Ceylon regained its independence.  As a photographer, he produced an invaluable record of pre-independence Ceylon, and in so doing he encouraged his compatriots to look at themselves and their past with new eyes in order better to frame their hopes for the future.   

He is now recognised as one of the most important Asian photographers of the Twentieth Century.  How sad it is, therefore, that today, seventy-five years after his death, apart from a handful of prints hanging in the Sapumal Foundation and a couple more in the foyer of the Memorial Art Centre, there is no permanent public display of his work to be seen anywhere in his native Sri Lanka. 

David Robson

Brighton, December 2020 






18th February, 2021 Visual Art | Conceptual