Donald Friend’s Imagining of Galle Fort and Port During The 1890s

Michael Roberts

This note was written in early 2005 as introduction to the cover of the second edition of Norah Roberts’s Galle as Quiet As Asleep (Colombo, Vijitha Yapa). That book is still on the shelves after another reprint and can be purchased by credit card from short note—reproduced below — was not based one extensive researach and relied purely on Barry Pearce’s Donald Friend. 1915-1989 Retrospective, a book which Albert Dharmasiri kindly loaned me. Readers are now exposed to more detail on Donald Friend’s colourful life and his capacities as writer, artist, painter and man about town through the works of Hetherington (and Britain). They will of course gain more information from the diaries themselves. Friend’s diary extracts during his time in Ceylon are available in the Roberts collection (as typed cpies— typed by unknown Sri Lankan aficianado) in the Barr Smith Library; but it would be simpler for readers to delve into tvolume III of the edited Diaries for this stage of his life.  Friend was a good mate of the Bawa brothers, Bewis and Geoffre; and Geoffrey Bawa eventually designed Friend’s pad in Bali for him. There are facets of his life that are not explored in the essays here, but Wikpedia will lead one to the more shadowy and raffish side of a bohemian character who must have been as lively as life itself.
The Australian painter Donald Friend (1915-89) is sometimes described as “the great wine of Australian Art,” but in 1984 not one work by him could be found in the National Gallery of Victoria, a fact that depressed him greatly. This may be due in part to the fact that his virtuosity generally involved “work on paper with pen and ink, wash, watercolour and pastel,” a medium rarely displayed “on a permanent basis in present-day art museums.”[1] But it could also be due to the fact that Friend’s life had involved journeys in search of the exotic.    After his early years as tramp, beachcomber and art student, Friend gravitated to London in the 1930s. Here, he developed a fascination for the musical world of “negro nightclubs” as he put it. “I become completely seeped in a negro atmosphere, as though drugged,” he wrote in his dairy.[2] This interest took him to Ikerre and Yoruba land in Nigeria in the late 1930s, where among other things he wrote a treatise on Yoruba rituals, relgious systems and art.

       Barry Perace contends that Friend’s “most profound contribution to art was the detachment of his draughtsmanship,” while stressing that within “his finest figure drawings that detachment was electrified with desire: a seeming paradox.” The latter spark came from his gay sexuality and the series of lover:model relationships that was a bedrock for his work.

       It was from gay networks as well as his desire for the exotic that a meeting with Bevis Bawa encouraged him to take up residence in Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known, in 1956/57. Here, in serendipitous Serendib, he remained, as in Africa and later in Bali, “the Euro-centred observer,” sustaining a “distance between himself and the culture he had adopted.”

       Though his Ceylon diaries reveal periodic bouts of depression, his four-year stay turned out to be a highly productive moment in his artistic career. Apart from line drawings, he secured mural commissions. One of these assignments in 1961, apparently mediated by Geoffrey Bawa, was the re-working of previous sets of drawings of Galle (made in 1960) into a mural for the firm of Mackinnon Mackenzie.

       Mackinnon Mackenzie’s interest in Galle derived from the fact that their shipping principals were the renowned P & O Company that bestrode the sea-lanes of the British Empire and its connections with Australia and the “Far East.” During most of the nineteenth century the P & O liners called at Galle on their way to and from these destinations. Friend responded with a spectacular oil painting backed by gold on hardboard on a panel 119 x 362.5 cm. It was “flanked by two 12-panel predellas richly detailing the flora and fauna of Ceylon.”

In depicting Galle Fort in his mind’s eye, Friend embellished his painting not only with people and bullock carts, but also with traditional Arab dhows and the type of ships used by the P & O during the late nineteenth century. Mischievously, he also inserted the Manager of P & O at that time into the right foreground, casting a telescopic eye over his charges. Pearce remarks that Friend was so pleased with the result that he wrote in his dairy of 26th April: “it looks so fine, the design of it simple, the details unimaginably complicated.”

Friend was not prone to excessive self-adulation. In this evaluation he did not mislead. He painting does Galle proud. It is widely regarded as a magnificent work of art and one of his finest. John Keell’s Holdings can be proud of their possession and this contribution to Sri Lanka’s heritage.

The worth of this mural painting is such that Australian state agencies expended considerable energy and expense in borrowing and transporting it to Australia for exhibitions of Friend’s work at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 1990. This event has gone some way towards securing artistic recognition for this versatile genius within his homeland. Barry Pearce’s subsequent edition of a felicitation, Donald Friend. 1915-1989 Retrospective (Art Gallery of NSW, 1990), has inscribed this worth indelibly in print.

[1] All quotations from this moment are from the “Introduction” by Barry Pearce in his Donald Friend.1915-1989 Retrospective, Art Gallery of NSW, 1990, pp. 7-20.

[2] Note that there was no racist connotation in this vocabulary on his part. Indeed, he was fascinated by the vitality of Black people.




Filed under cultural transmission, unusual people

6 responses to “Donald Friend’s Imagining of Galle Fort and Port During The 1890s

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