Just as with Horathapola, it was sad to leave 3 Sisters and our lovely new friends we had made there as we had made it home. But more adventures were awaiting the Wanderlust Junkies…
Nigel and Lau had told me all about Geoffrey Bawa before we arrived in Sri Lanka and I was bursting with anticipation to see the works of this architect who was the creator of “tropical modernism” and had left his very distinct mark on Colombo and Sri Lanka generally.
My first Bawa experience was, however, not to be a Geoffrey one, but the home and garden of his brother, Bevis, who was a landscape architect.
As we drove up to his home, Brief, I genuinely thought we had arrived in the Garden Of Eden. Think jungle, tropical, dense, lush, greens in so many shades, bright splashes of vivid reds……it is actually hard to think, because this was beauty beyond imagination.
I was entranced. We walked through the exquisite gardens, finding a piece of magic at every turn. Then we were shown around the house itself by a wonderful guide who had actually cared for Bevis in his later years when he was blind.
For someone who was so obviously obsessed with beauty, how dreadfully sad that in his last years he was deprived of actually seeing the incredible array of feasts for the eyes he had amassed. I can only hope he could see them clearly in his mind’s eye.
Whilst wandering around the grounds, I needed to go to the loo and was escorted to an outdoor one. It was divine. A vibrant blue door welcomed me, the ceiling was painted to portray leaves in gold and the view from the window is without doubt my best ever toilet view!
As with the grounds, the house was one wonder after another: art, books, furniture – all so obviously chosen and created with love and care.
Brief has an incredible sense of calm and peace and serenity, yet somehow manages to combine that with vibrancy and passion and excitement.
I loved it, in case you cant’t tell! Photographs showed Bevis to be a very calm looking and lovely man, and his guests to Brief included many dignitaries and celebrities from all over the world, including Vivien Leigh. The Bawas definitely were a family of substance and importance. the elite of Sri Lankan society.
We left Brief to continue our Bawa pilgrimage by going next to Villa Bentota, a hotel which had originally been designed by Geoffrey. Villa Bentota is owned by the Fernando family who seem to be the present day Bawas, in that they are responsible for creating a design and look and feel that is ever present in Sri Lanka and personified by their ever growing brand, Paradise Road. Paradise Road is a very distinctive brand and their superlative use of it makes it instantly recognisable. Villa Bentota is uber chic. Sheaths of black concrete. Water. Graphic stripes. But, despite its position as one of the finest hotels here, the staff were welcoming and friendly, happy to allow us to simply wander through.
Next, we went to an adjoining Bawa designed property, Club Villa. A completely different feel here. More “homey”, yet equally elegant. It seems that Geoffrey could turn his hand to many different styles. For me, Club Villa was particularly interesting as a very dear friend of mine is now living and working here in Sri Lanka and her partner grew up in this house before his family turned it into a boutique hotel.
My first taste of Bawa was wonderful, although Brief outpipped it for me, and as we drove to Colombo I was excited for more.
With a cluck-cluck here and a cluck-cluck there. Here a cluck, there a cluck. Everywhere a cluck cluck. Just as on Old Macdonald’s Farm there was clearly a lot of E-I-E-I-O at Bevis Bawa’s Brief.
This may sound like an irreverent start to a description of this exquisite paradise of a house and estate in the thick of the Sri Lankan jungle, which Bevis Bawa ran on his family’s behalf from 1929 and inhabited from 1949 until his death in 1992. But the house itself, for all its aesthetic sense and choice antiques and artworks, has such a sense of humour and brazen homo-eroticism that you simply chuckle as you meander your way around it.
Think Bloomsbury with willies.
If it wasn’t explained to you that ‘Brief’ refers to the legal bit of paper (his father was a highly successful lawyer), you’d swear it was Bevis Bawa’s tongue-in-cheek homage to the Jockey version. One of the LOL highlights is a peeing male-figure fountain. The penis is the water source, against a mosaic background of phallic wine bottles. Another double-take feature is a stone boy statue with parsley pubic hair. There’s a lovely set of four satirical paintings done by an artist friend, each painting with a humorous caption in rhyming verse describing Bevis Bawa and his boy entourage.
I think I would have liked Bevis Bawa with his mixture of bawdiness, artiness and hospitality.
The house abounds with works of art created by artist friends and protégés who stayed here. He clearly led a brazenly unfettered ‘bachelor’ existence (what gay man hasn’t been tagged with the ‘bachelor’ euphemism?), at a time when men throughout the world could be arrested for just a glance and in conservative Sri Lanka, where, even today, even heterosexual couples court behind trees in botanical gardens and bonk under umbrellas on beaches. Of course his lofty social status shielded and empowered him. He was clearly well connected.
A wall of photographs boasts such luminaries as Edward Duke of Windsor, Vivien Leigh and Ingrid, the late mother of the Queen of Denmark.
He was obviously a brilliant host in his jungle paradise and Maroulla, Lau and I felt very much at home here too!
Following the visit, we motor-wayed our way to Brief from Matara, then followed our visit with a taste of Geoffrey Bawa (Bevis’s famous architect brother). Bawa converted Villa Bentota into Sri Lanka’s first boutique hotel in the 1970s. It’s now a sleek reflection of Sri Lanka’s ubiquitous Paradise Road brand. Club Villa, its immediate neighbour, was originally a designed-from-scratch Bawa house commission and now another slick Bentota boutique hotel. We enjoyed a delicious passion fruit and arrack cocktail on its lawn before being abducted by our driver Vijay for a major detour to his family home for a cup of tea served by his wife and daughter-in-law. We felt like Maggie Smith in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in the scene where she visits the family of the hotel cleaning woman, tensely trying to work out why exactly we were there. A white lie saved us and around 3.30, relieved and sweaty, we made it to the Colombo Court Hotel and Spa, our home for the final three nights of our tour.