Donald Friend assessed by Venerable Bhikkhu Dhammika in 2003

In this era of political correctness and moral extremism exemplified in the Me Too movement, the assault on ‘offensive’ statues of famous men with questionable attributes, etc, etc, let me tweak the nether regions of these evangelical reformists by featuring Donald Friend, an Australian homosexual and paedophile of a brazen disposition, who displayed a wide range of artistic talents and happened to sojourn in Ceylon for quite a while — linking up with the talented and wealthy Bawa brothers (themselves members of the gay middle class community in the island’s tolerant ‘climate’– an environment that also attracted Arthur C. Clarke) …. Michael Roberts

Ven Dhammika of Australia: “The Spicy Illusion” in Island, 9/07/2003 …… http://www.island.lk/2003/09/07/featur11.html

Donald Stuart Leslie Friend was born in Sydney, Australia on February 6, 1915.  At the age of seventeen he ran away from home when his father opposed his desire to become an artist. He travelled to the far north of Queensland and lived for a time on the Torres Straight Islands. The natives fascinated him and for the rest of his life he was to find inspiration in exotic people and places. Later he made his way to London where he studied at the Westminster Art School and in 1937 at the age of only twenty two some of his figure drawings were exhibited together with established artists like Augustus John, Walter Sickert and Stanley Spencer.

It was a good start for a boy from the colonies. In the following years Friend either lived in or travelled through Italy, West Africa and other climes that fired his artistic imagination. With the start of the Second World War Friend returned to Australia and was commissioned as a war artist attached to the Royal Australian Air Force. He sketched and painted throughout Australia but also in New Guinea, Malaya, Borneo and several other places.

In 1949 Friend sailed from Australia to Italy and while on the ship he made the acquaintance of Bevis Bawa a European (sic) who had been born in Sri Lanka and been aide-de camp to the last two British Governors of the island. The two men got on well and Bawa invited Friend to come and visit his house in Bentota during the few days that the ship stopped in Colombo. Friend was entranced by Bawa’s beautiful house, by the lushness of the landscape and by the Sinhalese people.

In 1953 he visited Sri Lanka for a longer period, again staying with Bawa. The two men’s correspondence over the next several years shows that Bawa was always encouraging Friend to come and live with him, promising him his own bungalow in the garden and freedom to do as he liked. Friend wrote that he was encouraged by Bawa’s invitation and also tempted by what he called “the spicy illusion” that was Sri Lanka to come and settle permanently on the island. In 1956 he was planning to go and live on Zanzibar in East Africa but at the last minute changed his mind, perhaps because of the Suez Crisis, and headed for Sri Lanka instead.

Delighted

Friend was delighted with Sri Lanka and with Bawa’s house ‘Brief. He had a separate bungalow, several servants and the spacious and flower-filled garden to lounge about in. He wrote, “I can without moving my head on the pillow look out through the wide door at the foot of the bed into a charming little private courtyard garden enclosed by a white wall patterned with lichen. Beyond this wall, breaking the skyline, are bougainvillea, paw-paw and coconut palms. The courtyard is furnished with large terracotta or rough Chinese glazed pottery, containing various exotic plants.”

Towards the end of the year Geoffrey Bawa, Bevis brother and later to become the famous architect, arrived at Brief and immediately struck up a rapport with Friend; the two remained close for many years. Almost as soon as he moved into ‘Brief’, Friend started working by painting and decorating the house. He painted two doors which he later gave to Geoffrey Bawa in repayment for a debt and which were purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1988.

Near the main entrance to the house he did a large and colourful mural depicting the whole gambit of the Sri Lankan life and landscape. When the famous Insight Guides published their book on Sri Lanka they chose to reproduce this mural on the first page.

More than anything else Donald Friend was a figure painter; he enjoyed depicting the human form, especially the male, and there can be no doubt that he was a master of this genre. For several years before coming to Sri Lanka he had almost stopped painting figures because of his dissatisfaction with himself and doubts about the quality of his work. Now the fine features of the Sinhalese he saw all around Bentota – young mothers with their babes, bronzed fishermen, smiling school children, house boys – inspired him anew.

Some of the many figure studies and portraits Friend did in during this time in Sri Lanka were the most sensuous and beautiful he ever produced. He also took up sculpting again in both cement and copper, he had originally learned metal casting when he was staying in Nigeria. Some of his sculptures can still be seen in the bathroom at’ Brief’ and also around its spacious gardens.

In 1961 Mackinnon Mackenzie Shipping Company commissioned Friend to do a mural for their main office in Colombo. The mural shows a bird’s eye view of the fort and harbour at Galle. The clock tower, the lighthouse and even the mosque and the pansala are all clearly discernible. In the harbour there are Arab trading boats and ships of the British India Steamship Navigation Co, the ships that Mackinnon Mackenzie used in the 19th century. On the far left of the mural is the house of Colonel Bailey (sic), a well known Galle landmark and now the Closenburg Hotel.

Rather than use the azure blue that he often used in his Sri Lankan paintings Friend chose to depict the sky above Galle fort and harbour in gold leaf. Two 12 panelled predellas richly detailing aspects of life in Sri Lanka flanked the mural. The six meter long mural is the largest and most spectacular work the artist ever did.

Friend travelled widely in Sri Lanka and he was particularly attracted by the wall paintings in the temples around Kandy many of which he copied but strangely this never led him to having an interest in or even a curiosity about Buddhism. During the five years Friend lived in Sri Lanka his output was prodigious. On July 29, 1959 his Exhibition of Ceylon Drawings opened at the Lionel Wendt Memorial Art Center in Colombo. A year later at the urging of the German ambassador he held another exhibition at the German Cultural Institute. One critic hailed this as “the best mounted, best publicized one man show Colombo has ever seen”.

He also held two exhibitions in Australia during this time; one in Sydney in March-April 1960 and another in July-August 1961. But by 1960 Sri Lanka’s charm for Friend was starting to wane. Cantankerous and demanding by nature he was finding what he called the “languid indifference” of the Sinhalese irritating. His growing dependence on alcohol did not help this irritation either. Further, harsh new tax laws were making the country financially far less attractive for him than it had been and so at the end of 1961 he finally left.

But deep down Friend was deeply attracted to the tropical beauty and easy living in Sri Lanka and it took time for him to completely break free from its spell. In May 1962 he returned to finalize his affairs and to finish a mosaic for the Baur’s building in Colombo. He came again in 1965, 1971 and 1973.

In 1968 he went to live on the island of Bali in Indonesia where he was to reside for the next fifteen years and where he became something of a celebrity with both tourists and locals, a sort of latter day Paul Gauguin. In 1971 he wrote and illustrated a novel called The Member of the Veddah which was never published and is now lost. Judging by the title, it may have drawn on Sri Lankan themes.

Although Donald Friend always made a good living from his paintings and often exhibited them, recognition as a truly great artist eluded him until long after his death. In 1988 when The Great Australian Art Exhibition toured Australia as a part of the country’s Bicentennial celebrations there was not one of his work in the whole exhibition. This snub by the art establishment left him very bitter.

A year later on August 16 he died in his sleep at his home in Woolhara. Since his death there has been begrudging reappraisal of his artistic legacy. Today Donald Friend’s Bali years and the paintings that he did there have completely overshadowed his stay in Sri Lanka. Few people, including many in Sri Lanka, know that he ever lived on the island or that his time there was amongst the most productive and creative of his career.

As the art historian Barry Pearce correctly says “his period in Ceylon was… the most fruitful for his art of all his experiences of exotic cultures”. Despite this, none of Donald Friend’s paintings hang in the National Gallery in Colombo and only two of his works are still on display. These are ‘The City of Galle’ mural he did for Mackinnon Mackcnzie and another mural now both in the John Keells building in Slave Island. Neither are well known by the general public.

****  ****

Friend’s Imagination of Galle Fort and Port in the 19th Century

Interrupted Genius: Donald Friend and the City of Galle

Friend’s View of Colombo. 1961  = https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/66005950758170912/

ALSO NOTE

Michaela Boland:Blackballing Donald Friend: To do or Not to do?” 23 October 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/10/23/blackballing-donald-friend-to-do-or-not-do/

Anthony Funnell; Our favourite paedophile: Why is Donald Friend still celebrated?” 28 November 2016,… https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-11-28/donald-friend-our-favourite-paedophile/8053222

Binoy Kampmark: “The Last British Empire Paedophile: Morality, Art and Donald Friend,”  1 November 2017, https://www.ovimagazine.com/art/15072

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