Let’s start with some not very good [actually pretty awful] poetry because it gives a flavour of today’s subject:
In the land where the jaggery grows
And the skies are raucous with crows
Years ago on a pastoral hill
Which was left to him in a will
A young man was heard to declare
“I will build my kingdom here
And proclaim myself its chief
As the one and only
Bawa of Brief”
The “kingdom” was never particularly large, and the “chief” gave much of it away during his lifetime but there’s no doubt that what was left – the “one and only” Brief which is an unexpectedly wonderful garden.
The photos are mine unless otherwise acknowledged
Those lines were written by James Broughton, American poet and gay activist, and the poem goes for a dozen more stanzas, all in honour of his friend Bevis Bawa, the brother of Geoffrey Bawa of Lunuganga who I wrote about a few weeks ago. You can read the rest of the poem here should you so wish!
Bevis was 10 years older than Geoffrey, and was born in Colombo in 1909, to an ethically very diverse family headed by a successful lawyer Benjamin Bawa, and his wife Bertha Schrader. Benjamin was extremely well-connected and served as Solicitor General of Ceylon, and probably more importantly as an officer in the Ceylon Light Infantry, which led to him becoming the private secretary and aide-de-camp to the Governor of the colony. He died in 1923 when Bevis was still at school.
Bertha later sent Bevis to be trained on his uncle’s coconut estates, so that he could eventually take over the management of Dikkbede, the family rubber plantation in the south west of Sri Lanka. This he did in 1929. At the same time his mother gave him his father’s car and golf clubs as well as his own valet. Spoiled is a word that springs to mind. He realised that himself and commented on it in his memoirs, which is really no more than a collection of anecdotes in almost no order and certainly not a biography in any usual sense of the word: “at this age I had a rather exaggerated idea of myself and now look back with amusement on my foolish vanities.”
Towering above his peers at over 2m Bevis took a commission in the Ceylon Light Infantry, his father’s old regiment and, as if it was hereditary was also appointed as one of the Aides-de-camp (ADC) to the Governor. He served as ADC to 4 different governors over the next 16 years and so mixed in the highest circles of the colony, but it’s clear from his memoirs that he was glad to return to less formal and civilian life and get back to his new home and garden, which he had renamed Brief.
The usual story is that it was named that by his mother because the money to pay for it came from his father’s legal work but that is not the story that Bevis tells himself. He explained : “The name of our plantation was Dikbedde which none of my British friends could pronounce correctly. The British did learn a little Sinhala and Tamil. The civil servant’s knowledge of the vernacular had to be reasonably good for they had to sit an exam but as far as the planters were concerned it didn’t matter … So, two years later, when my mother gifted the estate to me, I decided to change the name. A novelist who was a favourite of mine had named three country mansions ‘Vantage’, ‘Usage’ and ‘Brief’, which tickled my fancy. The first sounded as if I had taken advantage. Usage sounded awfully like a brothel. So therefore, it had to be ‘Brief’, and still is.” [I’ve done some searching to see who this novelist was but without success so if anyone has any suggestions please get in touch].
In 1929 when he took over running the estate it felt quite isolated despite being only about 8km from the nearest sizeable settlement, not much further from the tourist resort of Bentota and just 45km south of Colombo. “There was only one mile of cart track from the main road passing through the village to ‘Brief”. So I constructed a motorable road putting in several concrete culverts and a wooden bridge where only a few coconut trunks had provided a semblance of one” …. and then “many four-foot bridle paths going to all corners of the hundred and forty acres”. He also began to show his paternalistic [in the best sense of the word] side and ” built an eight-room set of labourers’ lines according to government standard where wattle and mud huts had stood” His real concern for his staff was to last all his life.
Unfortunately Bevis was was not a born manager and hated routine. Managing the plantation was boring and his lack of interest combined with a collapse in the world price of rubber meant the estate soon began to lose money. He decided to change track, largely abandon the rubber and instead create a more interesting house and garden. First, views had to be opened up, which meant grubbing out a huge tract of rubber trees at the side of the house and then, working with a former school friend, Arthur van Langenburg, Bevis started re-planning the grounds, quickly developing what can only be described as a theatrical approach to the garden. One “scene” with its own “mood” and “quality” was followed by another different one in a sequence rather like an 18thc circuit garden.
Of course all this cost money, and money he didn’t really have, so to try and raise some he started a farm on another part of the plantation, and then a plant nursery. While the farm, like the plantation, went nowhere the nursery was, surprisingly, a commercial success, and prospered as more and more people visited. The gardens, initially kept private, were seen as a success too and, despite being a self-taught, or more appropriately, ‘intuitive’, landscape designer Bevis working with Arthur began to pick up commissions to design gardens for private clients and even commercial groups such as the Bank of Ceylon and a new hotel at Sigiriya.
By the time this was happening his mother had died and he had inherited the estate, and retired from the Army. He was also becoming well-known on the Colombo social scene as well as a writer and caricaturist as well as landscape designer. All this helped establish Brief as a centre for artists and creative people of all kinds including many who like him, were openly gay or as open as it was possible to be at the time.
One was Donald Friend, an Australian Bevis had first met in 1949 and invited to visit Brief. Friend wrote: “The house and garden were like a dream. I can’t imagine anything more lovely.” Invited by his host to come and stay in 1957 he did just that staying for for nearly six years! The two men worked together on the gardens and experimented with ways of making garden statues and other ornaments cheaply, often with concrete.
Friend produced the designs and Bevis supervised the estate workers making moulds for casting or sculpting everything from paving stones with imprinted leaf patterns to a whole range of anthropomorphic pots and weird and wonderful heads.
Many of the pieces were homo-erotic and they can be seen in many places round the garden, but they are witty and amusing rather than in anyway blatantly sexual in nature. They include versions of the Manneken Pis, and naked men with ferns as pubic hair.
However there is a darker side to this since Friend has been the subject of controversy especially since the publication of his diaries which describe his liaisons with adolescent boys which it is obvious that Bevis knew about but was never mentioned either by him or others who met Friend at Brief. Was the silence merely a sign of the times or….?
Certainly it did not stop celebrity visitors arriving at Brief and the house is full of photos including those of Vivien Leigh, Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter Finch, Agatha Christie, Robin Maugham and Queen Ingrid of Denmark, but from 1969 the garden was also open more generally to the public.
When Maugham visited in 1974 he thought Brief was Nirvana. “The house is a series of rambling courtyards, patios, loggias and terraces and filled with furniture – old and new indigenous and exotic – all blending together to make it one off the loveliest houses in the East.” He went on: “The harmony of the garden at Brief is unexpected because, as Bevis explains it, it consists of several small gardens – thought out by him in various moods and at various times during its growth over the last forty years. The result is a climax of loveliness, a proclamation that nature can triumph over the hideous inventions of mankind.”
The approach to this “climax of loveliness” is unexciting – along the narrow road that Bawa had built through a landscape of paddy fieldd, small hills and through spreading housing and some stands of jungle. These days the road ends at a small tree-lined turning circle.
In front of you is the first real glimpse of the theatricality of Brief : the entrance gates with piers topped by Bevis’s first concrete creations, two exotic satyr-like creatures with long grass growing like hair from the tops of their heads, almost like the ceremonial plumes of Roman soldiers or the Household Cavalry. They may be guarding the gate but they make you smile in the process.
A red earth path thickly lined with palms leads in a long curve to the next stage of the entrance process: the choice of a narrow path that leads down through thick greenery into the garden or a small black and white door set in a mustard coloured wall.
David Robson in his book on the Bawa brothers and their gardens compares the door to something in Alice in Wonderland. Its an apt analogy because it leads directly into the house where nothing is obvious or quite what it seems. A curved staircase which rises into the main part of the house and then out to its verandah where Bawa’s chair is still in its usual place.
That in turn leads to a private courtyard separated from the garden by a wall built from old bottles. This sounds kitsch but certainly isn’t, especially now it has matured and become a home to plants in its own right. It was designed in collaboration with Barbara Sansoni, who died just a few days ago while I was researching this piece, and separates the courtyard from an outdoor bath/shower room.
Rather like Geoffrey Bawa’s house at Lunuganga its easy to get confused because there are small courtyard spaces and verandahs almost everywhere round the house, and all verdant green with plants and dotted with ironwork, urns and statues.
Unfortunately I can’t find a guided description of the site anywhere. Even Robson’s book only has a few short paragraphs. The garden’s website hasn’t been updated for several years and in any case has almost no information at all so I’m afraid the tour will have to be done from memory, I hope I don’t make too many mistakes, but the photographs should make up for them.
You can see from the birds eye view that the gardens proper are complex too, but with three much more open sections, all interconnected with paths that meander through undergrowth and forest, and a series of smaller more intimate spaces and clearings. There are also gaps in the planting which allow snatches of views out into the surrounding agricultural landscape.
The northernmost of these open sections is the Horse Lawn, named for the statue that stands at the edge of the large square area of grass. On one side is a flight of steps which lead down into a moon-stone pattern reminiscent of a buddhist temple. Another side is open to an area of only semi-tamed forest which is now incorporated into the garden as “the wild wood”.
The central section looks open in the view but the approach, via a steep flight of steps is anything but that, being crowded in by vegetation. At the bottom of the steps is a circular pool overshadowed by bamboos and ferns including one that Bevis named Bimpol. As you begin your descent of the stairs the house disappears and could be miles away.
The final section is the most complex and was inspired by Bevis’s trip to Italy in 1949. Amongst many other gardens he visited those at Caprarola and the Villa Lante and this is perhaps his homage to them.
The ground slopes steeply down from the house and it was the perfect place for an Italian style cascade. It begins with an extraordinary concoction of an alcove in a rectangular box, topped with an urn that doubles as a fountain. Inside the alcove is a figure of a boy pouring water. This runs into a pool and then down a series of shallow stepped basins. At the base is an open grassed area with a metal umbrella-like structure topped by a pineapple!
Walking through the maze of paths between the three sections you get the sense that although Bevis somehow tamed the jungle to create the garden, it is only a momentary domestication. Two steps off the path and you are once again surrounded by forest.
The dozen or so smaller clearings offer a range of diversions and effects. A garden with Japanese overtones, a dining space, stone benches and a turtle basin are all enclosed by an extraordinary rich mix of foliage and flowers with the occasional piece of art lying in wait to surprise you.
Brief has a great mix of design and plantsmanship which gives the lie to Bevis’s claim that he didn’t know the names of any trees. “If I see a tree I like, I put it in.” He certainly did have a “feel” for the right plant in the right place, which combined with an eye for space and proportion makes Brief a playground for the senses. One of his skills was in knowing how and when to mass plant a single species to take advantage of its particular attributes and without becoming monotonous.
Creating the garden took place against the background of continuing economic problems. Unfortunately the price of rubber continued to fall to the point that Bevis was losing money hand over fist and was forced to retrench. His income now depended on the occasional tourist calling in to see the garden and the sale of plants from his nursery. He took a principled decision not to sack any of his 40 strong workforce, half of whom were Tamil and half Sinhalese, and whose families relied on the estate for their entire livelihood so instead he began to sell the land, and continued to do so until eventually only 30 acres was left of the original 140.
Bevis Bawa’s health began to fail in the 1960s. He was diabetic and suffered from glaucoma, losing most of his sight and by 1980 he required constant care.
After he died in 1992 he left what was left of the estate to his workers and the house and garden at Brief to his long time friend and collaborator Dooland da Silva who continues to run it with his wife. Da Silva also took over the landscape business – Brief Garden Designs – which is now run by his son Dan who trained as an architect at Sydney’s Technology University.
Michael Ondaatje the Sri Lankan novelist and friend of both Bawa brothers developed the idea that great gardens are often self-portraits. If he’s right Brief garden gives you a real insight into the personality of Bevis Bawa. He must have been a wonderfully complex character. Perhaps rather introspective, but generous to a fault, witty, engaging and with a strong sense of fun. And in Brief today the spirit of Bevis Bawa definitely lives on!