Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Living in Sri Lanka
(Thames & Hudson, 2006)
by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell


Much more than an armchair travel appetiser: interiors featured are of a consistently high standard … and there is much here to inspire - House & Garden

Read an extract from Living in Sri Lanka

Living in Sri Lanka was one of the most remarkable interiors books of 2006. Together with James and Joanna Fennell, Turtle Bunbury tracked down 26 beautiful and diverse mountain retreats, coastal villas and townhouses in the island of Serendib.

This gorgeous hardcover book gave a tremendous account of why Sri Lanka is regarded as one of the foremost beacons for 21st century style. Combining the influences of India, the Far East, Portugal, the Netherlands and British Ceylon, the homes featured in Living in Sri Lanka are stunningly photographed by James Fennell while Turtle pieces together the reasons why Sri Lanka is such a resilient island paradise.

The new book has received widespread attention for its positive portrayal of post-tsunami Sri Lanka. It has been declared Book of the Month by The Essential KBB, The Hot Read by In Style and one of the three Hot Summer Reads by Elle Decoration.

Living in Sri Lanka has also received substantial coverage in Vogue Living, The Financial Times, The New York Post, The Irish Times, The Scotsman, Sunday Express, The Australian, The Independent, House & Garden, International Homes Magazine, Homes Worldwide, Sunday Independent, International Homes Magazine, Serendib,The Sunday Express, Homes Worldwide, House & Garden and The White Book.

For details on where to purchase this book, email Turtle Bunbury.

Read Reviews at links below:

The Scotsman (by Jessica Kiddle) - The Australian - The Irish Times - The Sri Lankan Anchorman - The Financial Times - The Sri Lankan Sunday Times (where Richard Boyle quite rightly gives out about my appalling spelling)

Other Reviews

"This handsome interiors book - the result of extensive travels - pays tribute to Sri Lanka's diverse influences and could well promote the tourism that is vital to its recovery. While predominantly dealing with architecture and interiors, from colonial to contemporary design, it also captures the Sri Lankan people, their lifestyles and the landscape. Through Fennell's superb photography, we see that Sri Lanka is the location of buildings of simple elegance, many of which survived the tsunami".
Eoin Lyons, By the Book
The Irish Times, June 8th 2006

"Living in Sri Lanka is much more than an armchair ravel appetiser: interiors featured are of a consistently high standard; the vision presented, though exotic, is surprisingly alien; and there is much here to inspire".
Matthew Dennison's Noteworthy Publications
House & Garden, April 2006

"An ideal guide for those seeking a stylish retreat or design ideas from the Tropics … 200 captivating colour photographs portray the multi-cultural heritage and breathtaking landscape of this magical island. There has never been a better reference for those wanting to recreate a calm, harmonious and super-sophisticated scheme".
Book of the Month
The Essential Kitchen, Bedroom & Bathroom, April 2006

"We're anticipating glorious summer holidays with Living in Sri Lanka by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell, a mix of elegant homes and stunning landscapes"
Hot Summer Reads
Elle Decoration, April 2006

"Love rich, silk textiles and exotic mouth-watering interiors? Then Living in Sri Lanka will give you so many design ideas, you'll be checking in to see for yourself"
The Big Read
In Style, April 2006

"Mouth-watering photographs of exclusive residences and breath-taking landscapes … a must for anyone wishing to recreate the colonial style at home".
Image Interiors (UK), April 2006

"Living in Sri Lanka showcases some of the best of Sri Lanka's town and city houses, coastal villas and hill country dwellings".
Jessica Kiddle in an interview with Turtle Bunbury
The Scotsman, March 4th 2006

"A testament to a new era in Sri Lankan history where the colonial ambience of old can merge successfully with the modern desire to escape"
Design & Interiors
The Independent Magazine, April 2006

"A portrait of one of the most spectacular destinations on the planet"
Homes Worldwide, April 2006

"A world beater for spacious al fresco retreats and secluded coastal settings"
Sunday Express, 19th March 2006

"A sumptuous portrait of an unforgettable architectural landscape"
Introduction to an article by Turtle Bunbury in 'House & Home'.
The Financial Times, March 12th 2006

"An enchanting portrait of this magical tropical island. The houses are uillustrated by more than 250 photographs of their interiors and the stunning landscapes around them. For anyone searching for a hidden paradise or seeking to recreate their own, this book will provide an insight into homes and interiors in harmony with their environment"
Style Bible
Scotland on Sunday, March 12th 2006

Faded grandeur, modern vision: the style of Sri Lanka - The Irish Times, Thursday June 8th 2006 - by Eoin Lyons

From colonial days to contemporary times, Sri Lanka has a proud heritage. Eoin Lyons looks at a book celebrating its style and spirit of diversity

Sri Lanka, like many of the countries devasted by the recent tsunami, is making valiant efforts to return to normal. Living In Sri Lanka, by Turtle Bunbury and Irish photographer James Fennell, a handsome interiors book that pays tribute to the country's diverse influences, could well promote the tourism that is vital to its recovery.

Fennell specialises in interiors, fashion and portraiture, working for various Condé Nast publications; Bunbury has written a number of other books including The Landed Gentry & Aristocracy of Co Wicklow (2005) and this year won a Long-haul Travel Journalist of the Year award. This new book, published by Thames & Hudson, is the result of extensive travels in what the ancients called the Island of Serendipity and has received attention for its positive portrayal of the country post-tsunami.

While predominantly dealing with the country's architecture and interiors - from colonial to contemporary design - it also captures the Sri Lankan people, their lifestyles and the landscape. Over the centuries, Muslim traders and the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, then the British, were drawn to rule the tropical island (which is about the size of Ireland) just off the southeast coast of the Indian subcontinent. Through Fennell's superb photography we see that Sri Lanka is the location of buildings of simple elegance, many of which survived the tsunami.

A Dutch colonial villa, a tree house over a riverbank, a renovated manor, a 21st century eco-village, a 1930s Art Deco chalet . . . all sorts of buildings are here. The interiors captured depict both faded grandeur and modern vision, but what's striking about them all is that they have been constructed with great respect for the spectacular environment in which they are situated.

Defining Sri Lankan style, writes Bunbury, is complex. The country's history, location and multi-ethnic population has left it open to influences from across the world.

Yet in terms of architecture and interiors, Sri Lanka possesses a unique character.

Verandas and colonnades are highly practical attributes for tropical houses, giving shade from the sun, fresh circulating air and a sense of internal security.

A house called Doornberg in the region of Galle (one of the areas hard hit by the tsunami) is a Dutch Colonial homestead built in 1712. It is, according to Bunbury, one of the oldest and most elegant.

The original architect had an understanding of sunlight and as the sun sets over the central courtyard, the light of evening gives the house a golden hue.

The courtyard features squares of grass, pebble and stone, where guests take their meals.

A bedroom with a jakwood four-poster bed, has simple wicker furniture and a rattan rug. A traditional Rajasthani painting on cotton of an exotic elephant recalls the Hindu deity Ganesh, lord of beginnings.

A satinwood tree house stands 12m above ground in the bough of a pau tree.

Places like this are new additions to Sri Lanka's burgeoning eco-tourism industry.

© The Irish Times

The sprawling old, the exciting new

Living in Sri Lanka - Reviewed by Richard Boyle (The Sunday Times - Sri Lanka, December 2006)

For sometime I have been inspired by Thames & Hudson, one of the world’s greatest publishers of illustrated books. This is especially so as in 1971, two years before my first landfall in Sri Lanka, there appeared an exceptional work on the country by them that caught my attention in a London bookshop. It is one of a handful of English language books – the first being Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon (1682) - that will no doubt continue to be considered by generations of readers as essential to an understanding of the country.

With magnificent photography and design by Roloff Beny, and a thoughtful edited anthology of the historical writings on the island by Lindsay Opie, the book in question, Island Ceylon, is presented in breathtaking fashion. It is a sumptuous slab – literally - printed on thick, tactile paper. Nowadays it is so rare and precious to bibliophiles, especially the often suspicious Sri Lankan variety, that it is unlikely to be chanced on a coffee table. But then, ironically, English rodents ate a chunk of my copy’s cover during a period of storage.

Now thirty-six years later appears another book on Sri Lanka by Thames & Hudson; an illustrated selection of wondrous homes with a sprinkling of guesthouses and hotels called Living in Sri Lanka, created by James Fennell and Turtle Bunbury. Fennell is the photographer and Bunbury the writer. Both have impressive family connections with the island. Fennell’s great uncle, Colonel Thomas Wright, was the only suddha to sit in the first senate after Independence, while Bunbury’s great-grandfather was ADC to the Governor-General before the First World War. In 1912 he married the daughter of Bob Ievers, a well-known civil servant who possibly arrived in Ceylon as part of Sir William Gregory’s administration and was certainly a friend of archaeologist H. C. P. Bell.

It is hard not to compare the two books, products as they are of such a thoroughbred stable. Being from a different age, Living in Sri Lanka does not have the appearance of Island Ceylon. It lacks distinction in many ways: the colour combination of the jacket spine is unfortunate for instance. More important is that the text does not have the polished accuracy of Island Ceylon. If you are accustomed to reading the jacket blurb before commencing a book I suggest with Living in Sri Lanka you give it a miss. This is because the very first paragraph reads: “The ancients called it the Island of Serendipity. Since 1972, it has been Sri Lanka, the ‘auspicious’ (Sri) island to which King Lanka eloped with Rama’s beautiful wife in the 2000-year-old Hindu epic.”

The “ancients” seem to have risen the historical ladder, for serendipity (how such a marvellous word has become so abused) was not coined until 28 January 1754. “King Lanka” is yet another piece of nonsense: King Ravana is the name of course. And, incidentally, why isn’t the Ramayana named for the information of readers instead of being described as “the 2000-year-old Hindu epic”? (Anyway, shouldn’t it be “a 2000-year-old Hindu epic”?)

One can forgive Bunbury the lapses of the publisher, but at the start of his introduction, in providing a sketch of the island and its history, he gives the impression that King Solomon came to the island to procure the ruby that won him the heart of the Queen of Sheba, when in fact he sent emissaries. Bunbury also has a problem with the spelling of Mahaweli in the introduction. I found later many such errors throughout the book, some of which we will encounter along the way. On this subject, the British reviewer Andrew Robinson has recently drawn attention to the blemishes caused by the misspelling of Sri Lankan place names in Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Leonard Woolf.

When Bunbury shifts his attention to the story of Sri Lanka’s architecture, however, his writing becomes more assured. It being a wet tropical island, he notes the importance water has as a backdrop for dwellings. He then waxes lyrical in listing some relevant examples – examples that provide a fair indication of the varied content of the book:

“Along the south-west coast, villas sprawl between wind-blown coconut groves and the Indian Ocean. North of the pilgrim city of Kataragama, a wandering gem merchant has built a hamlet of thatched huts along the banks of the Manik Ganga, the fabled River of Gems. On the west coast at Balapitiya, a restored cinnamon planter’s villa rolls down to the estuarine waters of the Madhu Ganga. In the jungles east of Colombo, tree houses overlook the mighty Kelani. North again at Ulpotha, a two-thousand-year-old reservoir provides the backdrop for a sumptuous 21st-century eco-village.”

Some of the properties featured in the book are owned by locals, but many are owned by foreigners (there is now a 100% transfer tax for foreigners). In revealing the provenance of the properties, Bunbury writes first of those that are restored older buildings, victims of Sri Lanka’s “impoverished status” during the late 20th-century. Then there are the contemporary additions, “most notably along the Serendib Riviera” (Sri Lankans, especially homeless tsunami victims, please note: this is simply the south-west coast). These new buildings have been designed by both Asian architects such as Sri Lanka’s late lamented Geoffrey Bawa and his “spiritual heir” Channa Daswatte, as well as others such as the Australian Bruce Fell-Smith. The fact is that whether it was restoration or construction, much of the work on the buildings has occurred only in the past decade.

Bunbury also notes that “a new wave of interior designers, furniture-makers and artists has arisen”, combining locals such as Shanth Fernando and Nayantara Fonseka along with foreign residents such as Nikki Harrison and Saskia Pringers, that heralds an “exciting new dawn for Sri Lankan art and design”.

Living in Sri Lanka is divided into three sections. The first, “Town & City”, covers ten houses in Colombo and Galle. (According to an observer other than Bunbury there is a “300-strong foreign – and vaguely aristocratic – community” in Galle.) Bunbury provides a comprehensive history of each house and informative captions regarding the architectural elements and decorative works of art captured in Fennel’s photographs. These private dwellings range from Mary McIntyre’s Doornberg, possibly the most elegant and certainly the oldest villa in Galle, to Giles Scott’s fluorescent fantasy, The Dome, at the Galle Face Court in Colombo.

The second section, “Coastal Villas”, covers eight buildings, most of which are more familiar to Sri Lanka’a elite. Taprobane Island in Weligama Bay is known for having been once owned by Paul Bowles. Now owned by Geoffrey Dobbs, this 1920s villa with its “refreshingly shabby interior” is available to those with sufficient means. The 1990s Bawa-designed Lighthouse Hotel near Galle, an astonishing creation, is even better-known. Furthermore, it contains a major cultural artifact in Laki Senanayake’s (Bunbury slips with the spelling again) copper and brass balustrade. Nayantara Fonseka’s Taru Villas at Bentota is also explored territory for a certain section of society.

In contrast is the little known The Last House at Mahawella, owned by Tim and Sarah Jacobsen, which was Bawa’s final private house design, completed with the aid of Channa Daswatte in 2001. Bunbury (who finds the spelling of Kandalama difficult in this instance) claims that The Last House is “indeed one of Bawa’s greatest works”.

“Jungle and Hill Country”, the third and final section, is possibly the most interesting, containing as it does some extraordinary architectural and decorative ideas located in some of the most breathtaking areas of the island, away from the seaside milieu. The 1930s Kandy guesthouse rightly named Helga’s Folly – the Helga in question being owner Helga de Silva Perera Blow - is a case in point. Described as “one of the most outrageous guesthouses in the world”, the chaotic, overblown art deco interior captured by Fennell is in stark contrast to the often prim interiors of the book’s other examples.

Another unusual property is Ulpotha, Bunbury’s “sumptuous 21st-century eco-village”, centred on a 1990s restored walauwa next to a tank. (But oh dear! Having spelt it correctly earlier, Bunbury now makes a mistake with Kataragama.) Owner Viren Perera added an ambalama where guests take meals, built mud huts for accommodation, set up an organic farm, and declared Ulpotha a paranagama, thereby involving the local farming community.

However, the book’s most outstanding featured property as far as I am concerned is Rukman de Fonseka’s Galapita - “one of the most exciting new additions to Sri Lanka’s burgeoning eco-tourism industry” - located close to the Manik Ganga. From the moment guests arrive and find the cottage that provides entry is comprised of merely one wall they know they are in for something very different. Although much like Ulpotha in its sense of tradition and simplicity, Galapita has the edge with its superb location.

In the final analysis Living in Sri Lanka succeeds in portraying this new architectural rush in some style. Despite his hiccups with local spelling, Bunbury has written an agreeable text, complimented by Fennel’s simple and unobtrusive photography. It may not stand out on the bookshelf like Island Ceylon, but it deserves to be there nevertheless.