Władysław Teodor “W.T.” Benda (1873–1948) was a Polish painter, illustrator, designer and mask-maker.
The son of musician Jan Szymon Benda, and a nephew of the actress Helena Modrzejewska (known in the United States as Helena Modjeska), W.T. Benda studied art at the Kraków College of Technology and Art in his native Poland and at the School of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria. He came to the United States in 1899, to visit his Aunt, the famous actress Helena Modjeska and worked on her ranch in California alongside seasoned cowboys. He stayed in the U.S., moving to New York City in 1902, where he attended the Art Students League of New York and the William Merritt Chase School. While there, Benda studied under Robert Henri and Edward Penfield.
He joined the Society of Illustrators in 1907, the Architectural League in 1916, and became a naturalized American in 1911. He was also a member of the National Society of Mural Painters.
He remained in NYC for the rest of his life. Benda married the illustrator, mask maker and costume desgner, Romola Campfield, and they had two daughters, Eleonora and Basia, who both became artists.
From around 1914, Benda began making masks as a hobby and grew into an accomplished mask maker and costume designer. He designed and sculpted, Papier-mâché face masks for plays and dances and for his own paintings and illustrations. They were used in plays in New York venues like the New York Coffee House. Benda also created the masks for stage productions in New York and London for such writers as Eugene O’Neill in his play The Hairy Ape, and for Noël Coward. The name “Benda” became synonymous for any lifelike mask, whether of his design or not. Benda also created more fantasy and caricature “grotesque” masks.
Benda was commissioned to create the original mask design for the 1932 movie The Mask of Fu Manchu starring Boris Karloff which was originally published as a 12 part serial in Collier’s from May 7, 1932 – July 23, 1932. The cover of the May 7 issue featured a Benda illustration. In the twilight of his career, Benda spent less and less time doing illustration and more time making masks.
Articles by and about Benda and his masks appeared regularly in many of the same magazines and publications that carried his illustrations. In the 1930s, he wrote the Encyclopædia Britannica entry on masks. He also wrote a book, Masks,a treatise on his design and unique construction techniques.
Photographs of surviving Benda masks and one of his cover illustrations incorporating a mask design.