Down a narrow road through the swampy lowlands inland from Aluthgama, on Sri Lanka’s South-west coast, is ‘Brief’, a tropical masterpiece created by the lanky eccentric, Bevis Bawa. The elder of the two Bawa boys, Bevis confesses to have “started life seated on a comfortable silver-coloured cushion with [the proverbial] silver spoon in [his] mouth”. After the untimely death of his barrister father, and the subsequent tarnishing of the silver spoon, it was decided – since he showed no aptitude for his studies, or interest in the careers normally taken up by boys of his circle – that he should go planting. A short apprenticeship was to equip him with the means to support himself by managing the family’s remaining country estate – 140 acres of rubber. Whether he ever broke even in these endeavours is unclear. What he did discover, is that he had a passion and aptitude for gardens and gardening equal to his unquenchable joie de vivre.
From the original quarter acre he had hived off from the estate when they built a little house for him around 1926, the garden at ‘Brief’ grew to five and a half acres. And then, one day, “about the year 1950”, Bevis came to understand that this passion of his, rather than costing him nothing at all¹ was actually costing him a lot of money – a lot more than he could afford. He gives no indication, in his autobiography², what had precipitated this unusual act of fiscal introspection in a man who admitted his “system in life has been to do everything I wanted and then find the means”. What a sobering discovery this must have been, but with characteristic aplomb Bevis “Stopped all thought of future expansion”, and immediately went out and marked off half an acre to go wild. (Sixty years later, this half-acre is a mini Sinharaja, full of self-sewn and naturalised trees and vines, habitat to native and migrating fauna.) He then resolved that the fun would be had planning other people’s gardens, spending their money, and in the process making some for himself by charging fees. It was a good plan, and Bevis continued to spend others’ money creating gardens well into the late 1980s, when his eyesight began to fail.
As it has always been (free, until 1958, when taxation on property became punitive), ‘Brief’ is open to the public to enjoy. I fell captive to its exotic charms from my first visit in 1994, and have engineered visits to reinforce the island’s beguiling effect over friends, and my mother, ever since. Who would not be charmed? ‘Brief’ is a work of art, filled with works of art, created by a man whose thoughts on nature and gardening proceeded from the idea that “trees don’t hate”.
The garden meanders down the sides of a gentle hillock, creating secret bowers (as Robin Maugham described them – garden rooms, as we say today) wherein lie the reflecting pool, the Japanese garden, the fernery, the orchid garden – and the wide expanse I call the garden party lawn, the vistas, the forest … The lushness of ‘Brief’ can be almost overpowering, especially in June, after the rains, but in any season, the expansive umbrella of the scarlet-flowered flamboyant trees (Poinciana – Delonix regia), several varieties of palm – notably the exotic red-trunked Sealing Wax, or Lipstick palm (Cyrtostachys renda) – and bamboo, temple trees (Franjipani – Plumeria) and tropical fruit trees grow together in joyful profusion. And then there are the real exotics, flowers I had never seen until I had visited Bevis’s piece of Paradise: the Tacca chanterai from Yunnan, in China, the yellow-flowering climber that smothers the pergola that I’ve never found a name for, the great red pom-poms of the Asoka tree (Saraca indica) …
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Come, lets take a detour and spend the afternoon at ‘Brief’. You’ll not fail to notice we’ve arrived – the front gates announce a fantastical place.
As you emerge from the dimly lit upward spiral of the foyer, into the bright light of the veranda
the first thing you see is the Krishna mural, painted by Donald Friend as a gift to his friend Bevis. The mural is a jubilant map of vignettes of all Friend had seen on their many trips around the island during what turned out to be a five-year Sri Lankan idyll at ‘Brief’. Donald and the painter Russell Drysdale had been on their way to Europe in 1957 and cabled ahead suggesting they spend their five days ashore with Bevis. Like a certain middle-aged Australian woman you all know, Donald too became infatuated by Serendib and asked his host if he might stay on a while. It was a productive time for them both, Donald bringing with him “a high sense of fantasy” which inspired the gardener, as did his sense of joy at all he saw around him, delighting his host by his observations of the things “most people don’t bother to notice”.
Until they were purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1988, this set of doors graced the old Manager’s Bungalow at ‘Brief’, which Bevis had given over for Donald to use as living quarters and painting studio. I was lucky to see them when they were one of the highlights of the Gallery’s retrospective of the art and writing of Donald Friend in 1990, but sadly not part of the Gallery’s permanent collection – presumably because of their delicate condition. In his Irreverent Memoirs², Bevis describes how, with “a lot of gold leaf as background” Donald had conjured a couple of old doors with glass inserts into a pair of sturdily carved wooden doors with ornamental panels.
While Donald painted and began to create a reputation for his work beyond his growing clientele of visiting expats, Bevis continued to work on his beloved garden whenever he wasn’t spending other people’s money for them – oh yes, and entertaining a galaxy of friends and visitors – from Ingrid, Dowger Queen of Denmark to the Oliviers, Gregory Peck, Aldous Huxley, Robin Maugham … ‘Brief’ is only 60km (about 37 miles) from Colombo, and in those days the Galle Road wasn’t the maelstrom of traffic it is today.
Independence, in 1948, had brought many changes to Ceylon, but in the late fifties and sixties, Mrs Bandaranaike’s turn to the left precipitated decades of social upheaval and isolation. Only the most vital necessities could be imported from abroad, and in a perverse way this period of material deprivation gave birth to many of the creative innovations we now label ‘Sri Lanka Style’. Notable among these are the leaf-imprinted cement tiles and pavers Bevis made at ‘Brief’. Although he doesn’t say so, I’m convinced it was this need to ‘make do’ which added fuel to Bevis’s adventure in sculpting. Certainly, after the success of the gate post Satyr, he proceeded to create dozens of ornaments, statues and sculptural furniture for his garden – all to designs drawn for him by his house guest, Donald.
1. You must imagine this said with the nonchalance of unquestioning belief, reinforced by a slight, but dismissive wave of the hand.
2. “Bevis Bawa’s Brief – The Sometimes Irreverent Memoirs of a Gentleman in 20th Century Sri Lanka”, ‘Brief’ Publications, Brief Gardens (Pvt) Limited, Bentota, 2011
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