Fustic House, Barbados
Words by Juliet Austin Photography by Byron Slater
A jewel of the Caribbean, Fustic House lies in idyllic seclusion, shaded from the glare of the midday sun (and the heat of the paparazzi) by ancient groves of Mahogany, Flamboyant and Bearded Fig trees that allow even the world’s most visible, to wear a cloak of invisibility. Inspiring devotion from those fortunate enough to experience its rustic charm and peaceful solitude, the enchanting estate perches on a 500 metre-long forest ravine above Speightstown in the remote coastal parish of St Lucy, Barbados, commanding captivating views of the Caribbean Sea to its west and capturing the cooling Trade Winds from its elevated vantage.
Formerly a plantation house dating back to around 1750, ownership of the eleven-acre private estate fell to Charles Graves (brother of famed poet, Robert Graves) who, in the mid 1970s in a stroke of genius, called on iconic stage designer, Oliver Messel to marry the incumbent Colonial style with his distinctive ‘Messel magic’. Designing the Messel Wing and creating the distinctive lagoon pool, the flamboyant designer’s flair for whimsy and his affinity for the theatrical made him the perfect candidate to transform the old Great House into the exotic Bajan beauty that stands today. Subsequent owners built the Plantation Wing at the turn of the millennium, including design accents that echo Messel’s work such as the flattened arches and the indoor/outdoor sitting rooms, but it is the spirit of Barbados’ adopted son that lives on as the design nucleus of the estate.
Inspired by the warmth and vibrancy of the Caribbean, Messel’s dauntless spirit and his penchant for, “converting quite ordinary houses into wonderlands,” resulted in, “a jewel of a design” – around which the existing seven luxury suites have organically grown. With the spacious Great House at its heart – within whose walls lie the Master and Wisteria Suites – intimate flower gardens create a paradise on earth where one’s senses are nourished by the heady blend of exotic Rangoon creeper blooms, fragrant Jasmine and the visual spectacle of Heliconias. Shady groves, carved out of the mature tree cover – home to green monkeys and a chorus of tree frogs – are punctuated by the vertical splendour of Royal Palms, orchids and swaying vines that hang from picture perfect Caribbean skies. Remodelled by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, garden designer of Hampton Court Palace, winding paths and hedged walkways intersect the sprawling grounds, framing the 280 year old Mahogany park and weaving past the Messel and Plantation Wings to the new Pavilion Suite added in 2009 by current owners, William and Usha Gordon and designed by UKbased architect Malcolm Ness.
At night, the lagoon-style pool, chiselled out of coral rock and festooned by dense, tropical foliage in ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ finery, is lit from below by atmospheric lighting and above by dancing fireflies, leading you to imagine you have chanced upon some magical oasis. A sundeck, lodged high in the trees like some wooden aerie, affords panoramic views, while a moon viewing deck, treehouses, swings and newly discovered Arawak cave system cast you as an intrepid explorer on an enchanted isle. Add the cornucopia of unusual sculptures peppering the grounds – The Organ Pipes by Raymond Delamarre, a stone nautilus shell or the frolicking warthogs – and the illusion is complete.
The idyllic setting works symbiotically with the history of the house and the romantic character of the interior décor. In a salute to nature, Messel’s trademark exterior living rooms deliver imaginative statements – embodying the high culture and sophistication of the Colonial era set against a botanical backdrop of Cordia trees and the omnipresent seascape. Shady terraces – ideal for a quiet read or pre-dinner drinks – feature trellises, flattened arches and rusticated tapered columns, framing sumptuous natural canvases reflected in vast mirrors hung from exterior coralstone walls.
Moving inside, Messel’s easy mix of classical and baroque influences are quintessentially Caribbean. White-onwhite furnishings, including plump chaises longues, caches of antiques and perfectly placed deep-seated sofas augmented by splashes of bright colour, are the perfect counter to flowing muslin curtains. Central arches, flanked on either side to create theatrical symmetry, give way to light, airy spaces with cool, cement floors scored to resemble tiling, Messel Green cabinetry and high, cathedral ceilings. A candlelit pearwood dining table sits in front of a three hundredyear- old fireplace built from stone arriving as ballast on the early ships carrying plant-hunters and sugarcane barons from Bristol. Pannier-style urns and wooden window awnings, so typical of Messel’s design vocabulary, work together to produce internal scenes that ooze character while accentuating the seamless unity between inside and out. “Restfully simple” bedrooms feature luxurious four-poster beds, bespoke handmade embroidered linens by Lyndsay Taylor Designs and contemporary lighting pieces by Foscarini and FontanaArte side-by-side with Regency furniture made in Barbados; while showers are taken in outdoor courtyards filled with plants and shells.
Truly, Fustic House’s spirit smoulders rather than sparkles, testament to its centuries’ old grandeur – a world without end, where past and present, inside and out merge and fantastical dreams bear a beautiful new reality. Without a shadow of doubt: ‘they don’t make ‘em like this anymore’.
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