Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The following story is extracted from 'Living in Sri Lanka' by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2006)

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The Beach House

Tangalle, Sri Lanka

In 1993 the American artist Douglas Johnson purchased a small bungalow at Seenimodera, a charming beach just east of Tangalle on Sri Lanka’s south coast. Johnson, a regular visitor to Sri Lanka since 1987, had previously rented a house at nearby Dikwella which was designed by his close friend, Geoffrey Bawa. The original name for the house was Palliyagurugewatte, loosely translated as “The Vicar’s Garden”, in reference to an English clergyman who owned the surrounding land during the 19th century. The bungalow – a small, well built structure with rudimentary servant’s quarters and a small shack for the electricity generator – was built in 1984 as a holiday home for a Swiss restaurateur based in London. The property was abandoned during the late 1980s. When Johnson acquired it, the house was almost entirely unfurnished and the interior walls painted a gloomy brown. Moreover, with no running water, there was no garden to speak of, just a wire and bamboo-slat fence at one end of the property.

Johnson was a man of tremendous energy and creative imagination. The Michigan-born artist already had considerable experience in the field of restoration from his work on a large chateau in the south of France during the 1970s. He swiftly began applying the same techniques to the Beach House, purchasing furniture from antique dealers on the west coast, replacing the shutters and repainting the entire house. The principal bungalow now consists of four double bedrooms, a kitchen and an enclosed living room. Cool, white tile floors invite a barefoot lifestyle while, in the bedrooms, large windows, high-beamed ceilings and antique four poster beds exude a stylish homeliness. Meals are served on a white colonnaded verandah that loops around the south and east sides of the building. Dark wooden furniture, principally Dutch colonial, is offset against an interior of muted maritime greys, blues, creams and white walls. The master bedroom lies on the west side of the building and features an excellent open-air bathroom running down to the pool. The large pool actually occupies a prime location amid coconut palms just beside the beautiful sandy beach itself. A brick and mortar wall, also painted white, was built around the property. With advice from Bawa, Johnson had the generator shack converted into a detached bedroom, the Blue House, with its own porch and bathroom.

In 1994, Bevis Bawa, brother of Geoffrey and creator of the famous Brief Garden at Bentota, dispatched Karu, Brief’s head gardener, to help design and plant a garden. Karu and his assistants regularly visited the property for “maintenance checks” over the ensuing years.

As the house took shape, so Johnson felt a strong desire to start working in Sri Lanka. For this he needed a studio. Bawa once again pulled out his drawing board and a plan was devised; it would be a central unit based on the simple, austere style of a Dutch colonial protestant church. Tragically, Johnson became ill and died in Marseilles in 1998 before the studio could be completed. The present owner, Geoffrey Dobbs, has skilfully converted the basic structure of the studio to serve as a second detached bedroom.

Dobbs has been involved with The Beach House since 1998. He purchased the property and its contents in 2001, retaining much of Johnson’s original décor such as his antique furniture, book collection, shell mosaic mirrors and oblique collages. The villa is now one of the south coast’s most sought after places to stay.

Click here to view James Fennell's Sri Lanka photographs.