Interrupted Genius: Donald Friend and the City of Galle

Donald Friend 1915-89

Donald Friend, who is often referred to as “the great wine of Australian Art”, was born in Sydney on 6th February 1915. He studied with Dattilo Rubbo at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales in 1934 and under Bernard Meninsky and Mark Gertler at the Westminster School of Art, London. He spent much of his life outside Australia including periods in Ceylon (1957-61) and Bali (1966-80). He had power and sensitivity as a draughtsman, with an ability to delineate forms in an almost calligraphic line, mixed with feeling for colour and design. He died in Sydney on 16 August 1989, aged 74.

Barry Pearce, friend and Senior Curator at the National Gallery in NSW, writes about his sojourn in Ceylon;

In 1957 he sailed for Colombo with Russell Drysdale’s son Tim, but just before he did, produced The Fortune Teller in Hill End in 1956-without doubt one of his best paintings. Rich in colour and shape, it recalls one of the artist’s earliest loves of modern French painting: Paul Gauguin. Margaret Olley has pointed out that the decorative elements were inspired by a reproduction of Indian elephant rugs. Then in Ceylon [Sri Lanka] he produced a substantial body of work, from the trompe l’oeil doors, An Exotic Garden Viewed at Different Levels 1957, whilst staying on the estate of Bevis Bawa, whose brother the architect Geoffrey Bawa later installed the doors in his house, and there they stayed until purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1988; to the large mural City of Galle 1961 commissioned by a prominent shipping company. This walled Portuguese fort was captured by the Dutch in the seventeenth century and became the Ceylonese center of the Dutch East India Company.
Interrupted Genius: Donald Friend as Artist – by Barry Pearce

The company which commissioned the painting was non other than Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co, now a part of the John Keells Group.

Donald Friend (Wikipedia)

With Russell Drysdale

Invite from the 1990 Retrospective

Friend in Ceylon:

Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co. of Ceylon, a premier shipping agency in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), commissioned Donald Friend in the early 1960s, when he lived and painted in Sri Lanka for a period of 4 years. The mural depicts the artist’s impression of the ancient walled city of Galle as at the turn of the century. Galle was the shipping hub at that time, and the company traces it’s beginnings to this walled city, where its century long association with the shipping principals Peninsular & Oriental line (P&O) had its beginnings.

In his now famous diary, Friend made the following note on the 4th of April 1961,

“I’ve been working intensely and at a great pace nearly every day from early morning until the light fails, on the bid 12′ by 4′ panel of the mural. It comes along well. An elaborate and detailed subject – a sort of architectural fantasy of the walled fort of Galle with the harbor full of sailing ships, the sky in gold leaf”

The painting is a faithful representation of the important land marks in Galle as well as within the walled city. The clock tower, light house and the bastions of the fort as well as the New Oriental Hotel (now Amangalla Hotel), the Dutch Warehouse (Maritime Museum) as well as many other buildings are clearly identifiable. The house depicted on the point on the left, which is now the Closenberg Hotel, was once owned by the Agent of P&O, colonial artist and pioneering photographer, Colonel Bailey. Captain Francis Bailey arrived as an agent for the Peninsular & Oriental line, which has started a steamer service between Calcutta and the Suez. He purchased an old disused small fort and built the house of his dreams (see Closenburg the Cliff Citadel). The Baileys lived in the house till 1871, and sold it to the P&O Steamship Company for use as the official resident of the agent.

The person and the house in the right foreground, with the telescope, is the then Manager of P&O. The house is a manor house in the city of Galle that was built over 250 years ago by Don Johannes Amarasiri, a wealthy Sri Lankan aristocrat. This home was the official residence of the British Admiral of the Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company (P&O Line). The property is now a well-known boutique hotel called Tamarind Hill Hotel ( The painting depicts the manager looking out for the company ships arriving in to the harbor. This telescope is still in the possession of the company, and was used even after the shipping activities shifted to the port of Colombo (see Mackinnon Mackenzie & Company and the P&O Line). The ships depicted in the harbor are a mixture of traditional Arab trading sailing boats and some British India Steamship Navigation Co., trading ships that P&O and Mackinnon Mackenzie used at that time.

The mural consists of a massive center panel 12 feet by 4 feet, and two sections on the sides housing 12 smaller panels each, all mounted on a sturdy wooden sub-frame. The painting is in oil, gold leaf on hardboard and incorporated a technique of laying thin layers of gold foil on the painting, which Donald Friend introduced to Ceylon for the first time. The murals are painted in a Masonite base. This is a wallboard made in Australia and was used for wall panels and ceilings in place of plasterboard. In the 1950s- 60s many contemporary artists used it because it was cheap, readily available and came in sheets 48″ wide and up to 144″ long. Masonite expands and contracts when wet and with changes in humidity. The sub-frame acts as a restraint and consequently the paintings develop concave or convex warps in the center and also get twisted if the frame is not strong enough to constrain it.

Whilst in Ceylon, Donald Friend also painted a smaller mural for John Keells Limited, a long established tea broking firm. Titled “View of Colombo”, this mural has been painted with the accent on the tea trade.

View of Colombo 1961

The Artist became famous in his lifetime and died in the year 1989 unable to stretch his extraordinary life long enough to see a major Retrospective of his work arranged by the Art Gallery in New South Wales, Australia, in the early part of 1990. John Keells Group, the present owners of this magnificent piece, loaned it to the Museum of New South Wales for the exhibition. When informed of this decision prior to his death, he has been delighted that one of his major triumphs was being loaned as a centerpiece of the Retrospective. Both paintings were restored by the Art Museum of NSW during its stay in Australia. The ‘City of Galle’ was treated for insect damage and copies were made to be displayed in public areas, while the originals remained in the safety of the executive floor. The person who came to detach the panels, and pack it for shipment to Australia (as well as restore them while in Australia) was Allan Lloyd, head of Conservation. Years later, Allan was to revisit the paintings under totally different circumstances.

Anxious Moments:

14th February 2004 was like any other Saturday at the corporate office in Glenie Street. It was Valentines Day and the premises looked calm and quite. However things were to change drastically by nightfall. Around 10.30 in the evening, a suspected electrical short circuit started off a fire on the 3rd floor. By the time this was spotted, flames were leaping thru burst windows. The Colombo Fire Brigade arrived at the scene to fight the fire which by now was leaping upwards thru the burnt roof. The Air Force fire brigade too joined in with their high lift equipment and managed to douse the fire. By this time half the 3rd floor was in cinders, the rest lay covered in 6 inches of water. All power shut down, the building lay in complete darkness.

In the morning anxious executives climbed the stairs to access the damage and start the recovery process. Thankfully they find both murals untouched by the fire. The fire which damaged half of the third floor offices was stopped just on time; at a 9 inch wall separating the board room, from rest of the offices. On the undamaged side of this wall lay the mural ‘View of Colombo’. The mural suffered damage from water, chemicals and grime but a heavy wooden mount which kept it at least 4 – 6 inches away from the intense heat of the wall, saved the painting and the intricate gold leaf work.

Assessing the damage, the author, then a manager of the company, quickly contacted the Art Gallery of New South Wales and sought help, especially from Barry Pearce, to asses the damage and seeking advise on the restoration. Being on leave it was Allan Lloyd who was to respond to the appeal. Under Allan’s guidance the painting was removed to a safer location and the larger City of Galle mural was wrapped in polythene and enclosed to protect it from further damage during the cleanup and re-build.

Spit and Polish:

After letting the painting dry out for a period, Allan made a personal visit to asses the possibility of restoring the painting in situ or to make arrangements to ship it to Australia for further treatment. After the initial assessment Allan decides to start the restoration process in situ and started the painstaking process of cleaning the picture, panel by panel. Years of board room soot and dust has combined with the smoke particles, fire dousing foam and algae rich water pumped from the adjoining Beira Lake to leave streaks of light colored patches. The main ingredient used for cleaning was as creative as the painting itself.

A very soft brush is used by Allan to carefully remove any loose dirt or soot. To remove the surface soot he uses cotton wool buds and the best ingredient to remove this type of dirt; human spit!! The saliva helps to clean the mural without reacting with the paints used originally by Donald Friend.

Restored with loving care, and the ‘spit & polish’ treatment, the paintings are installed back in its original place in the restored offices.

Today the two murals take pride of place in the executive floors of the John Keells Group in Colombo. Copies of the paintings adorned the entrances to the Head Office (‘City of Colombo’) and the Shipping firm of Mackinnon Mackenzie, adjoining the Colombo port (‘City of Galle’) till 2015. In 2016, the company completely demolished the executive office complex down Glennie Street, to make way for the mega ‘Waterfront’ development the company was promoting. With this the executive offices shifted to a new office adjoining the Cinnamon Lakeside hotel, where the paintings are housed today.


  1. Website of the Art Gallery of NSW.
  2. The Art of Donald Friend in Ceylon – published by the Australian High Commission 2004
  3. Personal collection of author and correspondence with Alan Lloyd