If the stone garden walls of the Brief garden in Sri Lanka could talk, they’d have plenty of stories to tell. They’d speak of lavish parties attended by the who’s-who of Sri Lankan society, long and lingering gin and tonic afternoons on the verandah, and eclectic gatherings of international artists, politicians and local plantation owners. They’d speak, too, of the artistic air of the man who created them – Bevis Bawa, older brother of the famed architect Geoffrey. The Brief garden is a Bawa masterpiece.
Bevis moved to Brief as a young man in the late 1920s. The 80-hectare rubber plantation owned by his parents (it was named Brief after a successful legal case won by his lawyer father) was where Bevis, who had shown little interest in studying, was to become a planter. Soon after moving in, Bevis began gardening. “He just started landscaping his backyard. The garden grew and grew, as did the house,” says Dan de Silva, son of Dooland de Silva, Bevis’s former assistant and garden manager, and now owner of Brief. “He says in his autobiography that the garden and the house grew until he ran out of money!”
Dooland began working for Bevis in the 1960s. His father was friends with Bevis and asked him for a recommendation letter for Dooland to join the army. “Mr Bawa asked my father to come to Brief and be his secretary and manage the garden for me instead of joining the army.” Dooland declined but after a short stint in the army he left. “One day Bevis saw my father roaming around town with a bunch of boys. Bevis said, ‘Come and work for me’. Since that day my father did not sleep a single night more at his parents’ house. He just moved in to Brief.”
Dooland was sent to England to study landscape design, returning to Brief to manage the garden with Bevis, as well as working with Geoffrey Bawa on projects like the Kandalama hotel. When Bevis died in 1992 he left Brief to Dooland.
Growing up at Brief was “heaven” for Dan de Silva. “When my parents were upset with me I’d go and complain to Bevis. Every day after school I’d go and sit with him and talk.” The garden has had a powerful impact on Dan’s career as an architect and landscape designer. “Brief plays an important role in my work as a landscape designer. It’s helped me understand what I can do when I walk into a new project because I’ve had the opportunity to have grown up in such a beautiful place.”
Since Bevis’s passing, the de Silvas have carefully tended to Brief. They’ve “expanded it here and there”, but have kept the existing garden as is. The property, with its numerous expansive and intimate spaces, lush planting, sculptures (many made by Bevis) and art by Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend and others, is a world unto itself. It’s a magical, green place carved out of the jungle. Like all great gardens, it speaks as much of the land it sits upon as the hand that guided its creation. In this case, a somewhat eccentric six-foot-seven, Rolls-royce-driving raconteur with a air for design and a deep love of gardens.
Brief is open for visitors every day from 8am to 5pm. For more information, visit briefgarden.com.