By David Robson

Photograph taken by Rohan de Soysa at Brief Garden. 

Delini Raheem tells of the time when she and her mother bumped into Bevis Bawa in the Samudra Restaurant on Galle Face and her mother introduced him as ‘Geoffrey’s brother’.  Bevis towered over them and bowed with a sad smile: “Madam, in those days people used to refer to Geoffrey as my brother; how times have changed!”

Bevis was ten years older and two inches taller than Geoffrey, but in later life his star was eclipsed by his younger brother’s glittering success as an architect.  Even his exquisite garden at Brief eventually ceded pole position to Geoffrey’s more ambitious garden on the other side of the Bentota River at Lunuganga.

The two brothers were born in Colombo in 1909 and 1919 respectively. Their father was Benjamin Bawa, a successful and wealthy lawyer of mixed Moorish and British descent; their mother was Bertha Marion Campbell Schrader, a Dutch Burgher. 

Benjamin Bawa was one of the most successful Colombo lawyers of his day. Handsome, charismatic and a keen sportsman he could pass easily through the different compartments of Colombo’s highly stratified society and in 1893 he obtained a commission in the Ceylon Light Infantry, a part-time militia which boasted a mixture of European and Ceylonese officers.

In 1906 Bawa bought Chapman House, a spacious villa which occupied a large garden at the south end of Darley Road opposite Hyde Park and two years later he married Bertha Schrader, the daughter of Frederick Justus Schrader, a wealthy estate-owner from Negombo.  

The Bawas’ first son, Bevis, was born in 1909, a bouncing baby of some six kilos according to his own, not always reliable, memoirs.  Benjamin combined running a busy practice with his duties as an officer in the Ceylon Light Infantry and in 1918 became aide-de-camp to Sir William Manning, the new British Governor. 

Everything changed for Bevis after his tenth year. In 1919 his mother gave birth to a second son who was christened Geoffrey. Bevis now found himself playing second fiddle to a fair-haired, blue-eyed baby. Then his father fell ill and was diagnosed with Bright’s Disease, a chronic ailment of the kidneys and died in 1922. Bevis had lost the dashing soldierfather whom he so idolised and gained a rival sibling.

As a child Bevis had been taught by a series of private tutors, but in 1922 he enrolled at Royal College where “they tried to teach me a lot of gibberish such as Latin, Geometry and Algebra, which I knew would be utterly useless to me”. Having little or no interest in study he spent most of his lessons making caricatures of his teachers. 

Bevis’s most vivid childhood memory was the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1922. The Bawa’s owned Colombo’s best tennis court and entertained the Prince and the Governor at Chapman House for tea and tennis. The prince was only a mediocre tennis player but Bevis was impressed by the fact that he threw away his cigarettes after only a few puffs.When the guests had left, he carefully collected all the butts and smoked them one by one in the lavatory.

By the time he was seventeen, Bevis had fallen so far behind with his studies that he was relegated to a class called ‘The Remove’.  The school motto was ‘Learn or Depart’ and he decided to follow the latter option. Mrs. Bawa, accepting there was little hope of him becoming a lawyer, decided that he should become a planter and arranged for him to take over ‘Brief’, a rubber estate near Aluthgama which she had inherited from her husband. After spending a year as a ‘creeper’ learning the ropes of planting he installed himself at Brief at the end of 1928 and embarked on the life of a planter.

In the same year, following in his father’s footsteps, he joined the Ceylon Light Infantry. The regiment had a total of thirty officers, all part-time and drawn mainly from the business and planting community. Bevis’s recollections of life in the C.L.I. dwelt almost entirely on annual camps, botched war games, ritual raggings, dinner parties, and drunken brawls.

For a time, Bevis made a serious attempt to run the rubber estate properly but as the decade progressed, he devoted himself more to the Ceylon Light Infantry, spending most of his time in Colombo and leaving the day-to-day running of the estate to a superintendent.

At almost two meters in height, Bevis looked striking in military uniform. At the end of 1934 he was appointed aide-decamp to the Governor, a position which brought great kudos and a small stipend. He retained the position for eighteen years serving four successive governors. At the independence celebrations in 1948 Bevis had to accompany the then Governor, Monk-Mason-Moore, in an open-topped car.  The governor disappeared from view behind the upholstery, and Bevis, towering above him in his plumed hat, waved graciously to the crowds.

Mrs. Bawa was determined that Geoffrey would follow in his father’s footsteps and in 1938 packed him off to England to study to become a lawyer.  This meant that the two brothers lived separate lives for the next eight years.

After war broke out Bevis was called up for active service and was stationed in Trincomalee to help defend against possible Japanese invasion. In the following year, having survived a Japanese air-raid, he decided that real soldiering was not for him. He resigned his commission and returned to Brief, where he focused his attention on creating a garden around the bungalow.

His ideas were shaped by the position of the bungalow and the fall of the land and his immediate sources of inspiration were the estate gardens which he had seen during his time as a ‘creeper’.  Calculating that his rubber trees were losing money, his first radical act was to clear away about two hundred rubber trees and open views from the west of the house.

By 1945 the effects of the war and the cost of Geoffrey’s sojourn in London were taking their toll on the Bawa family fortunes and Bertha Bawa was in poor health. She died in April 1946 and left her property to be divided between her two sons.

Bevis realised that Brief was too small an estate from which to generate a substantial livelihood out of rubber alone. In 1944 he started a small dairy and chicken farm on one corner of the estate, and established a plant nursery.

Bevis’s childhood playmate Arthur van Langenberg was now making a name for himself as a theatrical impresario and stage designer. Arthur helped Bevis plan the garden and encouraged him to adopt scenographic approach, suggesting that the garden be conceived as a series of discrete tableaux, each with its own mood and character, to be moved through in a sequence.

By the time Ceylon regained its independence in 1948 all of the main elements of the garden had been put in place and the broad picture of what we see today had been established.

The bungalow had grown over time from its original core of cellular rooms and was now encased within a cordon of verandas and courtyards. The more public and open parts of the garden fanned out from the main verandas down the hillside towards the west, while the north and east facing sides opened into a private world of pool courts and shady loggias.

The main garden was laid out around three main prongs.The first was a sloping corridor of space formed by thick clumps of bamboos which contained a cascade of stepped water-basins. The second branched off and descended via a steep flight of steps to a circular pool. The third began with a large square lawn surrounded by a hedge from which a short flight of steps dropped down into a ‘moonstone court’. The prongs were connected by a series of pathways which thread through the trees via a series of small clearings. 

The garden was really quite small – it covered about two hectares - but it contained a bewildering labyrinth of external room-like spaces and views towards the outside world were generally limited to tiny glimpses.

After the death of their mother, Geoffrey Bawa had disposed of his share of their inheritance and had set out on a world tour that took him across the far-east and the United States to Europe. After more than a year of wandering, he returned to Ceylon and installed himself in Brief as his brother’s guest. The garden of Brief impressed him and he resolved to buy an estate of his own where he could create something similar.  Having found ‘Lunuganga’, an abandoned rubber estate a few kilometres to the south of Brief across the Bentota River, he worked briefly as a lawyer before embarking on a career as an architect.

By 1950 the dairy farm had foundered but the plant nursery and landscape business were flourishing and people flocked from Colombo to buy plants for their own gardens. Bevis now operated as a landscape designer and, as his fame spread, he was regularly called upon to design gardens for foreign embassies, hotels, private houses and country estates. One impressive example of his work, till surviving today, was the Sigiriya Village Hotel. This had been planned as a series of cabanas arranged in clusters and Bevis created a unique Sri Lankan garden within each cluster.  

In 1957 Australian artist Donald Friend came as a visitor and stayed as Bevis’s tenant for five years, living in a bungalow of his own away from the main house. As well as painting furiously, Donald collaborated with Bevis on a number of his garden projects and they experimented with ways to cast fantastic sculptures in concrete and make paving slabs with impressions of leaves. The garden is scattered with the results of these experiments – among them the bacchanalian gateposts and the turtle fountain.  Donald later applied many of their ideas to his gardens in Bali and they became part of the stock-in-trade vocabulary of tropical garden design.

The garden was now in its prime and Bevis played host to an ever-changing stream of visitors from all over the world as well as offering sanctuary to an everchanging circle of Sri Lankan artists. Bevis had become a well-known figure in Colombo society and acquired a reputation as a wit and raconteur. Denzil Pieris, the editor of the Sunday Observer, now asked him to commit some of his stories to print and he began to contribute a weekly series of articles which lampooned the “great and the good”.

From the time of his schooldays Bevis had drawn caricatures of the people around him, and in 1981 Harry Pieris of the ‘43 Group’ persuaded him to stage an exhibition at the Sapumal Foundation in Colombo.  For this over a hundred drawings were miraculously flushed out from various private collections to reveal the true extent of his talent.

During the eighty years of its existence, Brief has drawn thousands of visitors from around the world. Wherever he went, Bevis Bawa attracted attention. He made new friends easily and he always invited them to “drop in and see me.” Many did just that. He treated the Galle Face Hotel as his Colombo home and its terrace as his sitting room.  There he would strike up conversations with anybody and everybody including, over the years, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Aldous Huxley, Gregory Peck, Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier, and he invited them all to see his garden.

In 1980 the Californian film-maker and poet James Broughton stayed at Brief for several weeks and wrote a poem dedicated to the ’Bawa of Brief’ as his mark of appreciation:

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 own kingdom there
and proclaim myself its chief
as the absolute Bawa of Brief.

During the 1960s ill-health began to restrict Bevis’s lifestyle.  In 1969 he was joined by Dooland de Silva, an exschoolteacher from a neighbouring village, who became his secretary and helped him run the landscape business. 

Slowly his world began to shrink until it was reduced to the confines of his garden and he sold the last of his long line of motor cars in 1980.  Nearly blind and more or less bed-ridden during his final years, he died in 1992.  His death had been anticipated by Broughton in his poem:

He had always been prone to ailing
and one day this unfortunate failing
proved almost as fatal as death
when to friends’ and doctors’ dismay
he bodily wafted away,
yelling down with his vanishing breath:
‘Wave farewell to your wonderful chief,
your still very clever, now and forever
unforgettable Bawa of Brief!’


2nd November, 2023 Visual Art | Paintings