Bevis Bawa is a legend – and was in his own time as well. I was one of the fortunate to have spent long hours and even days at a time in his inestimably valued company during which I came to know and love the man for all his virtues and vices (most of which were, by then, dormant). Perhaps a bit of background info would be useful in getting a clearer picture, so let me start with his beginnings in brief – taken from the Preface of the book ‘Briefly by Bevis’ (a limited edition of 500 copies, published by The Sapumal Foundation in 1985).

Bevis was born at Chapman House in Darley Road, which was then a residential area at 4.00 pm on 26th of April, 1909. His parents were Benjamin William Bawa, King’s Counsel, and Bertha Marianne Schrader of Kimbulapitiya Estate, Negombo. He was educated at Royal College, Colombo, but left school at the age of seventeen to look after the family plantations. He joined the Ceylon Light Infantry in 1929. In 1934 he was appointed Aide-de-Camp to Governor Sir Reginald Edward Stubbs by cable while on a trip to China, and went on to serve on the staff of Sir Andrew Caldecott, Sir Henry Monk Mason Moore and Lord Soulbury, up to 1950. In 1922 Bevis Bawa accompanied his parents to England and there, nine months later, his father died. On his father’s instructions the family returned home, travelling via the continent. He recalls very vividly his extraordinary experiences on this extensive ten months’ tour of Europe in 1949. In 1934 he toured the Far East extensively, including Japan and China and went on a tour of India in 1946. His final trip abroad was in 1958, when he took a round trip to the Far East, spending a month in Japan. Landscape gardening, which began as a hobby, turned into a lucrative business when his resources became depleted after his considerable foreign travels.”

I first met Bevis when I spent a year in Sri Lanka on a leave of absence from my work whilst living in the States in 1970-71. It was a brief meeting at a mutual friend’s home in the south, but when I met him at his home ‘Brief’, in 1977 or 78, he managed to recall our original meeting and even described some of my idiosyncrasies of that particular period. A few years later, with his sight deteriorating to such an extent that he could hardly see except for very blurry images, he asked me to help him with the landscaping of Sigiriya Village Hotel. I was in the Landscape Consultancy business myself at the time and I supposed that this, plus the fact that we hit it off and had, in addition, several mutual friends (like Laki Senanayake, Dominic and Barbara Sansoni, Chitrasena and Vajira and some others), made him choose me. I was, of course, delighted and that was the real beginning of a close friendship that lasted until his death in 1992.

Following the completion of the landscaping of Sigiriya Village, I had lots of ‘scaping work at many of the hotels in the Bentota area which involved spending many days at a time in situ. Many of the plants I used were purchased from ‘Brief’ – a welcome source of income for Bevis, who had by then splurged most of his not inconsiderable fortune and had started giving away portions of his land to the many folk that had served him faithfully over the years. Not only did he give away the lots of land, he also designed and built each of these beneficiaries a small but aesthetically pleasing home for them and their respective families. His poultry farm, the occasional tourist visitors to ‘Brief’ and sale of plants from his beautiful garden, were his only sources of income at the time and this state of affairs would continue until his demise. Anyway, realising that spending time with Bevis during my off hours was no comparison to remaining at whichever of the hotels I was landscaping, I made ‘Brief’ my base (invited by Bevis, of course, which I accepted) – much to Bevis’ delight, as he craved company that he could relate to. By that time, of course, he was totally blind and one of his greatest pleasures was being read to – and this I did, when we were not absorbed – him regaling me with his endless slew of hilarious anecdotes and me wondering at his memory and gasping at the brilliance of his wit and the agility of his mind as he recalled long gone incidents in minute detail, each one dovetailing into another – and so it would go. I read to him – Michael Ondaatje’s ‘Running In The Family’ was one that he particularly enjoyed, as he knew most of the characters referred to and filled me in on the more colourful stuff that even Michael wasn’t aware of.

Brief’ was the name of Bevis’ home and gardens, which he built long before his brother Geoffrey took to architecture (I’m not sure of the year he built it) and it did seem to me that Geoffrey’s greatest architectural influence would have to be Bevis. Looking at ‘Brief’ before looking at anything of Geoffrey’s early work may give you an idea of what I mean. The gardens at ‘Brief’ however, reflect the influence that the European gardens he enjoyed during his tours, had on him, although his mastery at his art enabled him to combine the formal, ornamental arrangements with his own indigenous bits of ‘natural’ aesthetics. His great friend the artist Donald Friend, who spent long periods of time at ‘Brief’ also contributed in no small measure to the imaginative arrangements with his erotic sculpture and paintings. The entrance gates in particular are a fine example of what I mean. A description of this is as follows:

“…At some unspecific point we went up a rise into a beautiful avenue of Sealing Wax palms to a stone gateway where the sculptured posts were of nude males whose cocks formed the noses of faces below. And then there was a circle where we parked with a wall, a black and white door and a large bell..”

That was a description of the American poet and film-maker James Broughton, a mutual friend – but more of James later (I’ll have to do this in a subsequent post).

The book that I referred to earlier is a compilation of Bevis’ ‘articles’ – as he describes it in the Introduction: “..Many people collected cuttings of my articles, and a large number were keen on my having them published in book form. This I could not afford to do on my own. Some offered to sponsor the venture, but they were typically Sri Lankan, and nothing came of it. Now thirty years later, my friend Harry Pieris and some sponsors not yet known to me decided that they would undertake the task..”

Bevis was also a caricaturist par excellence. A friend and contemporary of Aubrey Collette, his caricatures, with his witty captions, were regularly featured in the press. Other contemporaries and friends were Arthur Van Langenburg, George Keyt, Lionel Wendt, Harold Pieris, Chitrasena, Harry Pieris, David Paynter and others of that ilk in those heady post-colonial days. A self-taught, or more appropriately, ‘intuitive’, landscape-architect and architect, Bevis’ eye for proportion and space combined with his ‘feel’ for the types of plants that would fit his scheme of things, made his gardens have his special touch. The houses he built for his loyal staff also reflected his eye for functional aesthetics and Karu’s house is a fine case in point (Karu is one of his loyal ‘retainers’, in whose house James Broughton stayed in – next post).

Bevis was afflicted with glaucoma, which resulted in his blindness during his last decade and also with diabetes, which further complicated matters and led to his disabilities – and ultimately to his death. The Dancer and I visited him at ‘Brief’ one morning. He had been more or less in a semi-comatose state, with periods of clarity in between. Fortunately for us, he was awake and was thrilled to see the two of us (he has known The Dancer from the time she was a child) and we proceeded to have a conversation – just like old times. He was as I remembered him and when we were ready to leave, I promised to come back and see him again soon, to which he replied that I always promised him I would, but that it was always too long between visits. We kissed him goodbye and waved as we left the room. He went to sleep and was hardly conscious until he died early the next day.

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