Source: Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon
Author: L.C. van Geyzel, juli 1949, Kirimetiyana, Ceylon.
See the Dutch translation by Barend Schimmel
L.C. van Geyzel about Lionel Wendt
Lionel Wendt had many qualities, both practical and intellectual, which the artist seldom possesses. He was remarkably businesslike—I have, indeed, never met any¬one who made money go further—and was fascinated by complicated business organisations, as he also was by modern machinery. He might have made a good scholar for he had curiosity, taste, and a tireless capacity for work, but I think he had a notion that to haul about a great deal of intellectual luggage obstructed aesthetic perception, and, in any case the creative thrill was lacking! He could not have been any of these. He had in fact been called to the Bar, and even practised for a very short while ; but it would seem that he had to be an artist and nothing else, and only then could his remarkable talents come into play.
Lionel Wendt was born in Colombo on December 3rd, 1900. His father, Henry Lorenz Wendt, was a Judge of The Supreme Court of the Island and his mother was the daughter of a distinguished Civil Servant. To be brought up in this sort of social environment, and at such a time, had its advantages and its drawbacks for a talented boy and Lionel had displayed remarkable musical talents very early. A cer¬tain amount of deference was paid to the arts. Books there certainly would be. Music there may have been, but taste was at a low ebb. That, however was as far as it went, and it was certainly assumed that no respectable male ever became an artist. The strength of these ideas may be gauged by the fact that when he left Ceylon at the age of nineteen, already an accomplished pianist, and possessed of a private income his work at the Royal Academy was to be only a sort of sideline to the study of a recognised profession.
Lionel and some of his friends put up a youthful protest against prevailing prejudice. It took the usual form, wide hats, floppy bows, long hair, Swinburne, Beardsley,
Wilde. Adolescent it is true, but fundamentally serious, and it is interesting to note that one of these men, George Keyt, still hardly known in Europe, is widely recog¬nised in India as a painter of real importance. Although he was zealously, if rather self-consciously, worshipping at the shrine of the late Romantics at this time, Lionel was also eagerly reading Shaw, Wells, Bennett, This was an early indication of the wide range which characterised his later work in which he handles the simple and direct, even the conventional with as much skill as the exotic, the satirical and the fantastic. Among writers he came to admire Proust above all, but he could also be “deeply moved by the simple down-to-earth quality of a film like ” The Grapes of Wrath.” In 1924 Lionel returned to Ceylon. He had worked at The Royal Academy with Oscar Beringer, and later, for a while, with Mark Hambourg. He was also a barrister and set up in practice a few months after his return. He had gone into a large house which he decorated in unusual colours and fabrics. Saris fluttered in the doorways; reproductions of modern paintings (hardly known in Colombo at that time) in frames designed and painted by himself brightened the walls. There was a large music room with a Steinway in it. It came as no great surprise to hear in a little while that the legal venture had come to an end, and that he had become a concert pianist and teacher.
Most artists would agree that to possess private means is an advantage. In Lionel’s case it enabled him to work at what most interested him; the modern composers. Concert pianists, however distinguished, have little time to spare for their con¬temporaries. Lionel worked very hard, but so much of this work was breaking new ground, involving, literally, years of practice, that many of the works he had studied so intensely were never played in public. For instance he had worked at several of Bartok’s piano compositions for nearly ten years at the time of his death, and these were, as far as I know, never included in his programmes.
It is not easy to decide whether Lionel’s dissatisfaction with concert playing grew out of the limitations of that art, or the discouraging musical atmosphere of Colombo.
He taught and even played up to the time of his death, but by the middle ” thirties ” music had become a secondary preoccupation. Fundamentally it was because he was casting around, half-consciously perhaps, for an appropriate medium in which to express the life of the people of this Country. The present is an age of revaluation. The values of Western culture, dominant for centuries, seemed to need revitalising. Here to hand in Ceylon was a way of life that was very old, but which retained in spite of poverty, squalor, and apathy, a vital sense that was lacking in more progressive countries. Man, living in traditional ways, had not become alienated from his en¬vironment. It is this which this first volume of his work so richly illustrates.
Photography had been a childhood hobby of Lionel’s, but such interest as he retained in it hardly gave one to suppose that it would become his principal preoccupation. About 1930 when he had moved into the small house he had built for himself he happened to pick up a cheap camera somewhere for a couple of rupees, and soon he was clicking away with the abandon of the happy amateur. The more successful results would be sent to his friend George Keyt who worked at the time in a photo¬graphic studio in Kandy to be enlarged. His interest grew but photography still remained a secondary interest. In time, however, equipment accumulated, a dark¬room was contrived, and by the middle ” thirties ” he was already so well known that when Basil Wright arrived in the Island to make the film that was to become so fam¬ous as ” Song of Ceylon ” Lionel was asked to assist him.
From now on his time was mainly devoted to photography. He made two short visits to England to work with Basil Wright and the G.P.O. film unit, and later established a studio for a newspaper concern which he managed for some time, but most of his best work was done in his own studio.
That the artist owes his success as much to industry as to inspiration is a platitude. Lionel’s capacity for work was endless. It came from some inexhaustible source of energy that seemed to inform his whole personality, and which, alas, made him ignore the symptoms of the disease which finally proved fatal because he knew that doctors would have ordered him to bed. It was not unusual to come upon him in some crow¬ded place squinting into a view-finder, wide brimmed hat thrust back, glasses pushed up on a profusely sweating forehead and having to be constantly wiped—somehow a characteristic gesture—quite unmindful of curious passers-by. In his studio he was inaccessible. It must not be assumed however that he worked in isolation. He was, in fact, largely responsible for organising groups devoted to music, painting, and photography which have gone on doing good work, and although he was indifferent to his own reputation he was quick to defend other artists. One recalls with delight many such explosive attacks which must have caused incautious critics considerable discomfiture.
Energy, vitality; some such word would describe the intelligence, the bubbling humour, the talent for mimicry and telling stories, these and ever so many other gifts which made his company so unforgettable. But there was something over and above and more profound; a self-sufficiency that was neither selfish nor ingrown, and an assurance that was never arrogant, or in the slightest degree pompous (a healthy irreverence indeed, was one of his most delightful characteristics). These qualities claimed one’s confidence and made one always want to share one’s ex¬periences with him. If at times he could be exasperating he was never insincere, and he had breadth of character that made temporary irritations seem quite unimportant. Such personalities ate rare. They are so vivid that they seem in some special way to belong to life itself. It would be no great surprise one feels, to see his fleshy buoyant figure turn up in some familiar place; to see him, for instance, in faded blue jeans and braces and some impossible shirt swing into his long sitting-room with the low bookshelves, its grey walls covered with paintings by his friends, and enormous enlargements of his own photographs and the piano at one end on which he would play, if the mood took him, anything from Beethoven to boogie-woogie.
Lionel Wendt died in his sleep after a heart attack on December 19th, 1944.
Kirimetiyana, Ceylon. July, 1949.
L. C. VAN GEYZEL