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 Weeraman Walauwa

Weligama Bay, Sri Lanka

The Weeraman Walauwa lies within a verdant green landscape of rolling coconut groves and rubber trees, a mile inland from the turquoise waters of Weligama Bay on Sri Lankan’s southern coast. The 200-year-old plantation villa (or walauwa) was originally built for a Dutch family who farmed the surrounding land for rice, coconut and, by the late 19th century, rubber. The estate was abandoned in the wake of harsh land reforms during the 1960s.

In 1997 the two-storey walauwa became the property of Pierre Pringiers, Belgian Consul to Sri Lanka, and his artist wife Saskia. Regarded as one of the greatest artists currently operating in Sri Lanka, Saskia’s work offers a dynamic richness that appeals to those with a more optimistic, vibrant view of human life and the future. Her artistic vocabulary is drawn from several reservoirs: mythology, spirituality and symbolism, which introduce an esoteric dimension. She and her husband have applied this same positive logic to the interior design of their Sri Lankan home.

On first approach, the two-storey villa forms a splendid eruption of boisterous terracotta roofs, beautiful panelled balconies and elaborate eaves. And yet, on closer inspection, it reveals itself as something inherently more interesting and mysterious. A teak double-door opens into a hallway of smooth polished concrete running between an office and Saskia’s studio. The hallway merges into a resilient white verandah looping around three sides of a typically Kandyan internal courtyard. The verandah is a broad, sweeping affair, bracketed by jackwood doorways and carved pillars, furnished with colonial antiquities and giant oil drums. The fourth, or south, side of the courtyard is bordered by a long stone-wall, behind which a steep grassy slope rolls upwards to an orchard.

When the Pringiers first acquired the property, there was no running water or bathrooms and the kitchen consisted of an open wood fire set on an earthen floor. A chequered floor kitchen now occupies the ground level on the east side of the courtyard, with water pumped from a well in the garden. In the expansive dining room next door, elegant lights of metallic black, designed by Saskia, are suspended above a robust dining table of polished grey cement. To the right, a cantilevered staircase rises to three bedrooms on the upper floor, one a ghostly attic overlooked by a giant communion tapestry.

The two principal bedrooms and main living room lie on the north side of the courtyard, each accessible through doors from the courtyard verandah. The entrance to the living room is particularly impressive, the doorway surmounted by an elaborate arch. Decoration is minimal –a hybrid of Asian artifacts, archaeological relics, Chinese ginger jars, Ayurvedic medicine cabinets, bullhorns, wicker chairs, orthodox candlesticks and miscellaneous stoneware. A black day-bed and wide white sofa face each other over a granite block table; Saskia’s own art adorns the walls. Both bedrooms and the living room have a second, larger double door on their northern flank which provides access to a colonnaded verandah. The northern views behold misshapen palm trees and a swimming pool, surrounded by iron sun loungers adorned with black and white cushions. Latticed frames above all doors and windows allow for a constant circulation of fresh air, an essential element for combating Sri Lanka’s monsoon climate.

In many ways, the Pringiers’ house is an extension of Saskia’s approach to the canvas – an enchanting distillation of traditional values and modern living.

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