|Lionel Wendt and George Keyt a close-up
Even as Manel Fonseka has so evocatively rediscovered Wendt for us, it is clear that he was indeed fascinated by the art of photography at a very early age. Both his grandfather and father were pioneers of the movement in amateur photography in 19th century Ceylon, and the young Wendt was using a box camera in his boyhood, intrigued by the processes that enthralled him in A. W. Andrees Studio. But it was not to become his overarching and all consuming passion and profession (overtaking his other great love, music) until the nineteen-thirties. Hence the particular importance of this unknown photograph. In the course of a long and intimate association with Keyt he would on occasion give me, retrieved from a not too orderly corner of his sprawling studio or hidden niche in his crowded study, a forgotten memento or meaningful token of his many storied past. This brief excursion into the special relationship between Wendt and Keyt has not been revealed before and is based on notes made in the course of conversation.
The meetings with Wendt commenced in 1913 when the Wendt brothers visited Kandy during school holidays to stay with John de Saram, a member of the judicial service, a close elder kinsman. The attraction between the two was immediate and lasting, and led to Keyt in turn coming down to Colombo during holidays from Trinity College to stay with the Wendts, until Wendt left for London for studies in law and music in 1919 to return in 1924. They kept in touch through letters. It was during this time that Keyt became increasingly drawn to the precepts and practices of Buddhism through a close association with the priests at the Malwatte Vihare, close to his home. He became a virtual hot gospeller for the renascent Buddhist revival and wrote both poetry and prose on Buddhist themes, while beginning to portray the life and teachings of the Buddha in line and colour. He was so attracted by the atmosphere and environment of the sacred city and its religious asceticism that he even contemplated a swift ordination. Wendts frantic cable dissuading him from this course was one of the deterrents that prevented Keyt from taking refuge in the Dhamma. Around this time Keyt earned small sums of money working at Plates studio in Ward Street, Kandy, retouching positives, and high lighting and giving depth to portraits, by the use of transparent colours providing a water-colour effect. This was achieved by the delicate skill of tiny brushes and indelible ink. But Keyt has disclaimed any alliance with Wendt in the processing of his friends negatives in Kandy.
After Wendt returned they resumed the old relationship and Wendt would come up to Kandy to stay with the Keyts. It was during this time that Wendt realizing Keyts enormous talents as a painter directed him to a life at the easel, and he forsook the pen for the compelling urges of the brush and an all-embracing passion for line, colour and form. Wendt also introduced him to the modern art movements of Europe he had made a close study of, lent Keyt books and magazines on art, besides feeding his appetite for contemporary literature, especially poetry. Keyt in turn, threw open doors and opened windows onto vistas of ancient art forms, and the still vibrant rituals and pulsating rhythms of Kandyan dance and music. The culture of an age-old society and its pastoral sights, sounds and tones appealed instantly to Wendt. In this area Keyt was the tutor. A first edition of Rev. Charles Carters English-Sinhalese Dictionary (1924) with Wendts name and date of ownership given me by Keyt is deposited in the University of Peradeniya Library - another index to Wendts inquiring mind into the nuances of the native tongue.
All the early photographs of Keyt in the thirties were taken by Wendt while Keyt relied on Wendt for comments on his poetry which he sent him, and depended on his artistic tastes and opinions up to the latters death. Of the three volumes of poetry between 1936-37, the first Poems (1936) is dedicated to Wendt. All the poetry in this period emerged from the deep recesses of a disturbing and crucial phase in the early married life of Keyt. When the break with Gladys Ruth Jansz and his two daughters became inevitable it was Wendt who supported the difficult decision, as well as his liaison with Pillawala Menike, and admired her for herself. When Keyt retreated to the seclusion of his first village home in Ranawana, Hunangoya, Wendt was the only friend, associate or relation who maintained a close link with Keyt, and Keyts sly trips to Colombo with Menike in his red Baby Austin (with his driver Appuhamy) would be encouraged by Wendt - both having thrown bourgeois caution to the winds. When Wendt built his house "Albarado" (=Dawn) after his return from England, it was Keyt who made the abstract design of a piano keyboard in Indian ink for the scroll buried in its foundation.
Keyt was also associated with Wendt in the production of the three avant garde Ceylon Observer Pictorials in the late thirties when Wendt directed the Chitrafoto Studio at Lake House. I possess an outline for one of the contents pages in Keyts bold black layout. It was Wendt too who encouraged Keyt to undertake the invitation of his brother-in-law Harold Peiris to execute the celebrated mural paintings on dry plaster at the Gotami Vihara in Borella between 1938 and 1940 and visited often to watch progress. Keyt also shared Wendts enthusiasm for the Gintupitiya Theatre performances and the travelling Carnatic drama and dance companies.
Keyts early paintings of nudes were influenced by the imaginative creativity of Wendts special forte in this sphere, and were inspired by Wendts models. The first edition of Gita Govinda. The Love of Krishna and Radha from the Sanskrit of Shri Jayadeva in 1940, limited to one hundred copies, privately printed in Kandy for subscribers only, was dedicated "To Lionel Wendt remembering an old enthusiasm." It is a collectors item, as it is different to all succeeding editions.
Both men felt cribbed, cabined and confined by the stifling and inordinately puritan and overly chaste mores of the society they moved in, and broke free in defence of their artistic motivations and impulses. As to Wendts sexual predilections Keyt was a confidant as well, especially when it came to his conflicting passion for women. Wendt was strongly attracted to Peggy, Keyts sister, younger by four years, and revealed this desire to Keyt, but was always terrified of alliances with the opposite sex for fears of the outcome.
In Keyts words: "A strange case in the way he used to admire certain women", but two early encounters in Colombo and London as a young man put his desires in that direction in permanent jeopardy. He had attained early to a fixed notion that he would or could not be loved. In Keyts words again: "He was always in a state of conflict, and homosexuality, though a driving urge, did not satisfy him. Never met any one in the intellectual or artistic world who had Lionels wit, power of argument, literary skills, and intellectual ability. And a friendship was something very sacred, and he remained a loyal friend to the last". A silver cigarette case he gifted Keyt in the thirties had this text by Marcel Proust engraved inside the cover. "The bonds that unite us to another creature receive their consecration when that creature adopts the same point of view as ourself in judging one of our imperfections". Elaboration is superfluous.
And to close with three imperishable memories of my own. The first is of walking into his home in 1943 with Harry Pieris and George Claessen to view his collection of paintings and watch him practicing on his Steinway piano. The second of having Banda (his devoted house-aide) open the door of his studio-dark room after his death and of literally wading through piles of discarded positive enlargements in lavish and immaculate abundance littering the floor (so all absorbing was his driving desire for perfection). It was all I could do to resist the temptation of stooping to pick up my favourite nude "Model Resting" (No. 121 in both the 1950 volume and 1995 reprint, and 147 in the present volume). Later Bryan Van Starrex photographed me in the studio which members of the Photographic Society of Ceylon were permitted to use. But that early souvenir of 1918 remains to haunt the memory with its nostalgic cadence and appeal.
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