Turtle Bunbury

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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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Mrs. Tennekoon

33rd Lane, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Built in the 1880s, Mrs. Norma Tennekoon’s two-storey townhouse is situated at the end of 33rd Lane, a cul-de-sac just off Bagatelle Road in Kollupitiya, Colombo. The surrounding area was formerly part of the Bagatalle Walauwa, later “Alfred House”, a 120 acre farm owned by the great Sri Lankan philanthropist Charles de Soysa. At the time the Tennekoon house was built, de Soysa owned nearly 25,000 acres of coffee, coconut and cinnamon plantations across Sri Lanka. The houses on 33rd Lane were probably built for senior workers on the Bagatelle estate.

Mrs. Tennekoon purchased the property in 1976 on the advice of her friend, Geoffrey Bawa, the architect who had rented a series of bungalows on 33rd Lane as his home and studio since 1959. Bawa was rarely able to suppress his passion for the private house, especially for those who lived within range of his vision. And so he swiftly commenced a renovation to make the Tennekoon house more suitable to the widowed Mrs. Tennekoon’s lifestyle. Her late husband, Herbert Tennekoon, was sometime Secretary to the Treasury and, after retirement, served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Japan. Bawa began to rearrange the building, raising roofs, knocking walls, inserting a verandah and creating a new L-shape living room. By 1978 Mrs. Tennekoon’s house was amongst the most admired in Colombo.

A small door on the right side of 33rd Lane leads into an intimate, elegant courtyard, cobbled with stones from the old Fort – Pettah tramline. Brass lamps and Cambodian dragons flank a sofa of tamarind wood. A small sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesh stands upon a series of stacked copper pots, deliberately left unpolished. The principal rooms lie through a set of double doors at the far side of the courtyard. It is effectively a sequence of rooms, connected by open arches, culminating with an Italianate garden of leafy ferns, curvaceous bamboos, hanging baskets and a raised terracotta pond.

In the main living room, a floor of cobble-fringed cement flagstones is bedecked with soft, colourful armchairs and sofas of wicker and ebony. The walls are decorated with works by some of Sri Lanka’s foremost artists, including Laki Senanayake, Saskia Pringers, Ranil Deraniyagala and Jaya Wirasinghe. Mrs. Tennekoon’s extensive travels during the 1950s and 1960s are reflected in an impressive array of trophies that now adorn her house - charcoal Cambodian dragons from Angor Watt, Nepalese silver dishes, Vietnamese footstools, Indian wood carvings, Portuguese dolls and British antique furniture.

A flight of parquette steps to the left of the living room wends towards a guest’s bedroom with views over the garden. The garden was created from space previously occupied by the servants’ quarters and is reached via an arched colonnade to the rear of the living room. A bamboo drape hangs across to prevent rain getting in. Bawa was opposed to any such drape but the inimitable Mrs. Tennekoon is insistent that “sometimes it wasa necessary to go against his wishes!” The back wall of the living room consists of an elaborate fretwork, made by Bawa from a fanlight found at an abandoned walauwa. On the wall above the pond hangs a large sculpture of a banyan tree by Senanayake.

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

Mrs. Norma Tennekoon passed away on 16th September 2013.