Roloff Beny: A Canadian Photographer Records his Travels in Sri Lanka in the 1960s

Beny, in his Rome apartment, selects negatives, colour transparencies and prints (Roloff Beny / Library and Archives Canada)

One of the most prized items in a rich collection of photographic books in the library of the Sansoni family is Island Ceylon featuring a Canadian photographer, Roloff Beny. The Sansoni family owns “Barefoot”, a well known Colombo store that features regular art exhibitions in a lovely outdoor patio setting. Dominic Sansoni is a recognized photographer and judges that Beny’s book was “extremely important…as it was one of the first of its kind and was beautifully produced”. His lens captured the so-called “cultural triangle” from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa, Sigirya and the Kandy Perahera.

Beny was born in Medicine Hat, Alberta and the University of Lethbridge houses his permanent collection. Beny was a painter who went east to the University of Toronto and then to New York. He got a big break in 1947 when his colour engravings won a prize from the Brooklyn International Museum. He moved up quickly and travelled the world on the strength of initial recognition from Peggy Guggenheim and art agents from the Boston and Harvard Museums. By the age of 30 he was one of Canada’s well known modern painters. In Spain he lost his painting equipment and turned to his camera to capture sketches. Photography quickly became his main artistic passion. Beny created 16 remarkable books after the publishing of his first book The Thrones of Earth and Heaven in 1958. He settled in Rome and lived there for many years before his death in 1984.

Beny travelled to Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Iran and India as well as Sri Lanka. In his introduction to Island Ceylon (1970), Beny explains his strong feelings for Sri Lanka and its attractions compared to the chaos of capital cities in Europe and America. As he writes, “Now the West is going East”. He was known for his great love of ancient and classical art. He dedicated his book to the Canadian High Commissioner and his wife, James and Carol George, “whose love and understanding of Ceylon encouraged us to undertake this book”. James George, who lives in Toronto and remembers Beny says “Roloff was a dear friend of ours and followed us around Sri Lanka, India and Iran – with books to show for it”.

Canadian publishing legend, Jack McClelland, was the head of the Roloff Beny Foundation and a friend of Beny and called him “one of the world’s greatest photographers”. The Royal Ontario Museum named a gallery after him. He was the friend of Tennessee Williams, Henry Moore, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and photographed many of them including Fellini during his filming in Rome of the revolutionary film La Dolce Vita.

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