Lionel Wendt

The Photographer

“Lionel Wendt who was stimulated with the cutting-edge culture of that time during his
study in Europe, produced experimental photographs, influenced by Surrealism and Constructivism,
from early of 1930’s. He made full use of formative ways of modernism such as making a bold frame and angle that can be made only through a lens, or surrealistic images with special print techniques.
On the other hand his photographs of daily scenery and customs are full of love for the traditional cultures and tropical nature of his homeland. Especially, through his male nudes, we get a
strong impression and see Wendt’s unique gaze. In fact, in his photographs, we  can see an interesting
relation involved with universal aspect of modernism, that is exploration of new visions,
and regional and individual aspects.”

- Yasunaga Koichi, Gaze of Modernity, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, 2003

Lionel Wendt's interest in photography may have come from his father Henry Lorenz Wendt (1858-1911) who in 1906 co-founded the Amateur Photographic Society of Ceylon. Initially using a small Rolleiflex camera, and thereafter a Leica and printing his own photographs in the darkroom, his focus shifted to photography in the early 1930s. Several published texts by art historians, biographers and writers have underlined how Wendt was well informed about the art movements taking place in Europe having spent five years living and studying law and music in London. His awareness of key trends in photography from Europe, as well as America, came from international art and photography journals such as U.S. Camera, Photographie and Photograms of the Year. Whilst being knowledgeable about what was then, an emerging field, Wendt's importance lies in what he did with this knowledge.
When assessing his work, the innovative strides he took with photography were not only unprecedented but ahead of their time. Wendt's genius was in the dark room, which is where he experimented with many different kinds of printing techniques. By 1934 he had mastered the solarisation process where the image recorded on the negative is wholly or partially reversed in tone. Dark areas appear light or light areas appear dark. It is believed that Wendt printed several hundred works using the solarisation process, sometimes but not exclusively in combination with other techniques such as double exposures, montage and enlargements. The extant prints are of astonishing magnitude and represent rare examples of techniques that were in their infancy when seen in the wider context of photographic art history, especially in relation to the new research areas of South Asian modernisms that question the hegemony of western modernism. Wendt's experiments with the solarisation technique are for example comparable with the work of the American artist Man Ray (1890-1976) who was simultaneously producing work of a comparable nature in Paris with the Surrealist avant-garde in the early 30s.
His fame was so great that Wendt was invited to hold a solo exhibition in 1938, organised by none other than Ernst Leitz (1871-1956) at the Camera Club in London. In 1938 he was asked to set up Chitrafoto by the newspaper owner Don Richard Wijewardene (1886-1950) in Colombo, leading to further exhibitions, as well as helping to establish Wendt as an important critical voice in his role as editor of the annual publication The Ceylon Observer Pictorial and as author of a bi-weekly photography column for the newspaper. More recently Wendt's work has been included in Documenta 14 in 2017 and his prints are in the public collections of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Tate in London, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. His work, is the subject of growing international interest by curators, museums, scholars and the general public. He is without dispute a figure of huge and unparalleled importance in terms of modernism in Sri Lanka and the wider South Asian region.

The inheritors of his legacy, the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund, is now the custodian of the largest collection of photographs of Lionel Wendt through the bequests of his brother Harry (Henry) Wendt (who died a year after Lionel) and their close friend, Harold Peiris. Totaling over 400 photographs, it is the largest collection with clear provenance. The collection has also been the source to three seminal publications of Lionel Wendt work, Lionel Wendt Ceylon (1950), Lionel Wendt Photographs (1994 Exhibition Catalogue), and A Centennial Tribute: Lionel Wendt (2000), all three being produced by the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund.

The Musician

Lionel Wendt's interest in photography is attributed to his father, while his mother is credited with having discovered his talent for music and encouraged him to become the brilliant pianist that he was. Unfortunately, his mother was not alive to hear him perform at his first public concert at age 18 which was in aid of his school, St Thomas' College. A newspaper reviewer called him the best of the younger generation of pianoforte players.

Soon after this debut, he left for London to study law in accordance with the dictates of family tradition, but by December 1919 he had enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music and was studying piano under the renowned pianist and teacher Oscar Beringer, and was awarded a bronze medal in April 1921. He also trained under Mark Hambourg of the famous Hambourg musical family and studied harmony with Paul Corder FRAM, who was a Professor of Composition and Harmony.

Wendt returned to Ceylon in 1924, a barrister by profession and a virtuoso pianist who over the next twenty years, played for friends in his home, at public concerts, both as a soloist and at two-piano performances, and was also a teacher of music and mentor who encouraged the musical talents of scores of people, including the indigenous music of the Kandyan dancers and drummers. Together with Harold Peiris and George Keyt, Wendt contributed towards the establishment of a School of Kandyan Dance started by Suramba in Gunnepanne, Kandy. It was Wendt who made the world their stage by incorporating the gajaga vannama played by the Kandyan drummer Suramba into the musical score of Basil Wright's award-winning film Song of Ceylon.

His foray into Hultsdorf did not last long. Abandoning a legal career, Lionel Wendt filled his home and his life with the arts stepping beyond the bounds in everything he did: his photographs were creations that are unmatched even today, his non-conformist approach and appreciation of art led to the formation of the '43 group and the wonderful work that the member artists produced, and in music too his repertoire, though rooted in the classical music world to which he was born, extended to Bartok and the Boogie Woogie, genuinely delighting enormously in it all.

On his return, with his very first concert in 1925 for voice (Mrs. Stanley de Sarem) and piano devoted totally to modern music, he seems to have scandalised conservative Colombo society for whom the benchmark was classical music. Playing scores by de Falla, Ravel and Poulenc, he chose to tread a new path, stimulating an interest in contemporary music and broad-basing the music appreciating public by playing music that had greater appeal. As recounted in Applause at the Wendt by Neville Weereratne, he offered to simple folk most of whom did not know Bach from Bartok, good music, playing enthusiastically for the Ceylon Music Society, both at the YMCA, Fort, and in his home. Visitors to his home Alborado were often given a drink and a chair and then treated unasked to impromptu performances - even an audience of two was enough to prompt a performance.

Wendt pioneered two piano concerts in this country, sometimes sharing the limelight with his pupils, two of his principal pupils, Ithalie Mack and Hilda Naidoo joining him on stage. In August 1943 accompanied Gladys Forbes, he opened a programme arranged by the British pianist/composer Brian Easdale with Cappricio, and closed the evening playing the Rumba with Easdale himself in two-piano performances. Wendt's most successful, long-standing and intimate partnership seems to have been with Gladys Forbes, a professional pianist who studied music and singing in Edinburgh. Playing together for two pianos from about 1931 to 1943, a reviewer records in 1936 that "the recital given by Gladys Forbes and Lionel Wendt was the best musical performance Colombo has had for many a long year, considered from every conceivable angle."

Lionel Wendt changed the firmament of music in this country, not only with his skill at the piano, but also with what he produced at the piano. Writing about a recital in Colombo in 1931, Andrew Boyd said, "What strikes one most in his playing is the same quality which made for the choice and arrangement of his programme (Bach, Chopin and the Chilean composer, Humberto Allende), a musician's grasp of the compositions as music and not a virtuoso exploitation of them." As with photography and art, in a short span of approximately twenty years, he changed the course of musical history of this country.

Lionel Wendt Art Centre

Centre for the Arts

Lionel Wendt's home, Alborado, on Guildford Crescent, was a home for the Arts. Upon his death at age 44, his brother Harry wanted to convert his home into a formal Centre for the Arts as a permanent memorial to Lionel Wendt. Yet Harry Wendt died a year after Lionel and the Centre was established through the bequests of the two brothers, and the unstinted efforts of the Executor of the estate, Harold Peiris. The homes of Lionel and his brother Harry were Alborado and Wentworth, both on Guildford Crescent. Wentworth was sold to raise funds and Alborado was demolished to make way for the Arts Centre. A personal friend who believed in the same ideals as the Wendt brothers, Harold Peiris contributed much of his time and his personal funds to establishing the Trust and the Centre. Harold Peiris was a Founder and Lifetime Trustee of the LWMF. The Lionel Wendt Art Centre was opened in 1953 with a production of Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths directed by Neumann Jubal. The Lionel Wendt Art Gallery on the ground floor was opened in 1959 and in tribute to his dedication towards perpetuating the legacy of Lionel Wendt and furthering the arts, the upper floor gallery was named the Harold Peiris Gallery. Spanning nearly three quarters of a century, the Lionel Wendt Centre has provided the space for the performing and visual arts for both local and international productions and made a significant contribution towards the development of the arts.

The Archive

It is with great pleasure that the Trustees of the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund (LWMF) launch the "Archive on Lionel Wendt and the Centre for the Arts built in his memory" on 3rd December 2020 to commemorate the 120th Birth Anniversary of Lionel Wendt.

The 120th Birth Anniversary Commemorative Programme included a series of events culminating in a Festival of Arts in November 2020. The year commenced with a tribute to Lionel Wendt's first love - music. The Young Musicians Concert, featuring emerging musicians, was held in January 2020. However, owing to the current Covid-19 regulations, the subsequent events had to be cancelled.

Included in the schedule was an Exhibition comprising two parts: "Mementoes of Lionel Wendt treasured by his fellow pianist, photographer and close friend, Gladys Forbes" and "a Selection of Photographs by Lionel Wendt from the LWMF Collection". Photographs of mementoes and a few originals from the Gladys Forbes' collection were donated by her nephew, William Mackie, to the LWMF. To quote Mackie "When my Aunt Gladys died, I inherited some mementoes of her friendship with Lionel Wendt and of their shared interests. The friendship and combined interests of Lionel and Gladys in piano music and in photography provides an insight into their professional and artistic cooperation and personal relationship over much of their respective lifetimes. These items reflect Lionel's great enjoyment of humour, his creativity and his desire to share his interests with other people." This exhibit of mementoes, comprising of concert programmes and reviews, photographs, postcards and notes and letters sent by Wendt to Gladys Forbes, along with commentaries by William Mackie, gives us an insight into his persona. The exhibit of photographs from the LWMF Collection provides an overview of his work. The Exhibition has been postponed for next year in accordance with Covid-19 regulations.

The last couple of years have been spent digitising the LWMF collection of photographs, exhibition catalogues and programmes of events held at the Centre and other ephemera, as well as collating information on the life and times of Lionel Wendt and the Centre. The Archive that is launched today includes the LWMF's unique collection of Lionel Wendt's photographs, audio-visual materials (including specially filmed oral history interviews), ephemera and publications related to Wendt's work as well as a record of the history and events of the Art Centre and Theatre. The Archive which is hosted on our revamped website includes photographs from the LWMF collection and private collections and other material on Lionel Wendt and the Centre for the Arts. The Archive is an ongoing project and material will be sourced and added constantly. Regular visitors to the website will, therefore, always find something new to discover.

The Trust also intends to establish a permanent gallery of Lionel Wendt's photographs and a Museum/Archival Room which will be open to the public, scholars, researchers and students. Selected material as well as his photographs will be accessible on our website.

Several persons have contributed towards setting up the Archive and we record our thanks to the key persons involved. The Archive Project commenced with the sorting and cataloguing of the LWMF collection of photographs by Sharmini Pereira (Collection's Curator: May 2017-November 2017) assisted by Krishnapriya Tharmakrishnar and Jasmine Nilani Joseph. We thank them for their contribution and Pereira's advice and input with regard to the Archive is greatly appreciated. Malshani Delgahapitiya (Project Officer-LWMF) came on board in March 2019 and without her enthusiasm, technical expertise and drive this Archive would not have been ready for launch on Lionel Wendt's Birth Anniversary. Our thanks also to Shift (Pvt) Ltd. and their team for providing the design for the website pro bono, and to the web developers Infinitum360, particularly to Lahiru Bandara, for being available over the years to deal with numerous amendments and glitches with cheerful cooperation. The GTZ - SRP Project provided a grant towards the creation of the website and we thank Christoph Feyen (Programme Director, GIZ - SRP) for his interest in Lionel Wendt and Nigel Nugawela (Archivist, GIZ - SRP Memory Culture), for his advice with regard to the Archive. Johann Pieris, Research Assistant-LWMF, has long been associated closely with the Centre and was instrumental in ferreting out many interesting records for the Project. Work on the Archive would not have been possible without the unstinted support of Dilrukshi Wijenayake (Administrative Secretary-LWMF) and we owe her an enormous debt of gratitude.

The LWMF is dedicated to making this Archive the most comprehensive repository on Lionel Wendt and the Lionel Wendt Centre for the Arts. Lionel Wendt was instrumental in charting new paths in the arts and the Centre has served as the platform for the launch of many artists and art forms, both visual and performing. 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 other persons who were closely associated with Lionel Wendt and the Centre will also be of great use. In addition, stories and memorabilia of exhibitors and performers at the Centre will be greatly appreciated. Donations can be provided as outright donations or in digital format. The Trust can make arrangements to photograph collections. A register with details of each donor and the contributions will be maintained and acknowledged wherever possible.

Please e-mail: Lionel Wendt Art Centre at, or or call +9411 2695794 in this regard.

The Trustees - Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund
3rd December 2020