Sunday, July 5, 2009

Of Far Away Places: Tunisia, Hammamet, Leila Menchari

This 1920's garden and house in Tunisia remains a beloved destination for its owner, Hermes design director Leila Menchari who faithfully maintains its free spirited aesthetic. The house and its grounds, photographed by Guillaume de Laubier, were featured in the Australian edition of Vogue Living of August 2003. The garden is also the subject of a book that I have used as a reference, 'A Garden at Hammamet' co authored by Michael Tournier, Barbara Wright and Leila Menchari.

the front entrance of Dar Henson, owned by Leila Menchari,
photographed by Guillaume de Laubier
(click for a much larger view)

As a young girl, Leila Menchari wandered up from the hot sands of a beach in Tunisia and, led on by a black cat, found herself in the cool green depths of an enchanting garden. Palms rustled overhead, creating shafts of light. Earth paths led through a tangle of exotic plants - cactus, eucalyptus, agave; the air was scented with datura, white oleander and jasmine.

A pool in the gardens of Dar Henson,
at the end of which sits a columned dovecote.
photographed by Guillaume de Laubier

This magical garden belonged to Jean and Violet Henson, a bohemian Anglo-American couple of aristocratic bearing who had settled in Hammamet in 1925 following a life of adventure full of travel and art with friends including Man Ray, Cocteau, Berard and Serge Lifar. Their home, Dar Henson, was a low white washed house of colonnaded courtyards and spacious rooms, surrounded by a series of gardens filled with fountains and scattered throughout the lush foliage were ancient roman columns and pediments, part of Jean and Violet’s extensive collection of antiquities from Carthage and other archeological sites.

a lily pool at Dar Henson across which one can see the Gulf of Hammamet
photographed by Guillaume de Laubier

This experience was to Leila Menchari's life, she would eventually become the Hanson’s spiritual daughter. She was fascinated by them, absorbing all their otherness and their world of eclectic treasures culled from their travels and the friends they made along the way. In their double height living room, heirloom furnishings were paired with lamps by Giacometti; photographs by Horst and their extensive collection of books, while drawings by Christian Berard and other notable artists hung along the hallway’s pale lilac walls.

The garden's cultured artistic owners became Leila's mentors, encouraging her to study painting at the l’école Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Since 1977 she has been responsible for concocting the most alluring window displays for the Maison Hermès store in Paris. I refer to the Polyglot, who writes that generations of Parisians, and those who regularly make the trip to Paris, will tell you that Hermès’ store windows are meant to make you dream. That is why crowds jostle for position to catch a glimpse of the fantastic scenarios crafted out of silk, coral and leather that are a voyage into the imagination of their creator, Leila Menchari. Her poetic displays have included a huge origami horse that looked as if it had been created from one of Hermès famous silk scarves, gazelles grazing amongst stacks of fine china piled high with colorful macaroons and Tuareg jewelry laid out on petrified wood that recalled the African Sahara.

I patiently await the delivery of a second hand edition of ' Tales of a Wanderer' by the author who is described as Maison Hermes Visual Magician
I make this post in anticipation of its arrival:

The gilded Hammamet story started in the 1920s with Georges Sebastian, a Romanian millionaire businessman with aristocratic connections, who purchased nine acres of land just along the beach from Hammamet's medina, creating a villa that Frank Lloyd Wright was to call "the most beautiful home I have ever seen". George Sebastian was an extravagant man. During the 1920s and 30s he partied like no one else on the north coast of Africa, and his hospitality to people like Gide, Klee and Beaton inspired other members of the fast set to set up home in Hammamet.

It's a fashion that has continued to this day. In 1966 the American painter David Dulavey built Dar Dulavey - Dar is an Arabic term denoting a house, but not just any old house, usually the most distinctive dwelling in its part of the town. In 1974 the Italian architect Tony Facella Senso created Dar Senso in the old medina. The former Italian prime minister, Benito Craxi, was a near neighbour. Nowadays the popularity of this Tunisian resort has got out of hand. For three miles south of Hammamet stretch the boulevards of a newly-built Hammamet Sud with 47 Las Vegas-style themed hotels. Here you can stay in mock-Roman opulence, in a pseudo-Greek temple or a Moorish theme park with hookah pipes and Turkish baths, all safely controlled by security guards and electronic gates. Luckily, old Hammamet survives to the north, at the neck of the Cap Bon Peninsula.

It is still possible to travel to the ancient walled medina to find what drew Americans like Wallis Simpson, Paul Bowles, author of The Sheltering Sky, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Once upon a time this was the place where European and American artists came to discover themselves. Paul Klee came here in 1914, confessing breathlessly in his diary, "Colour and I are both one: I am a painter!" Andre Gide visited too, The Sitwells also trekked out to tranquil Hammamet before World War II, as did Cecil Beaton and Baron Hoyningen-Heune, chief fashion photographer for Harpers and Vogue during the interwar period. The stars of the Comedie Francaise built their summer homes there as did American socialites like John Henson and his British wife Violet, who were later to foster the talents of the inimitable Leila Menchari.

Dar Othman via commons.wikimedia

It is possible to get an inside view of life among the 1930s glamour crowd with a visit Dar Sebastian, the villa that George Sebastian designed and built with the assistance of a local mason - who used nothing more sophisticated than a series of rods to make his calculations - is open most days and accessible from the Avenue des Nations Unis. Purchased for the state by President For Life Habib Bourgiba, it is now the Centre Culturel International D'Hammamet. Admission costs two dinars, visitors are free to wander and there is an informal cafe service run by the side of George Sebastian's marble swimming pool.

Because of the high standard set by George Sebastian, the vision encapsulated in some of the villas of the 20's and 30's is breathtaking, especially those which occupy the eastern wall of the medina and face out towards the Gulf of Hammamet. From the outside they are simple and with white walls, blue-painted doors, traditional cupolas, the only sign of the electronic age being the vast variety of antennae, dishes and aerials on the roof tops. Most of these houses are still privately owned, and it takes a personal letter of recommendation to get a look. One or two are available to rent, but the rates exclude all but the seriously wealthy: Dar al Qamar, for example, comes complete with servant and cook for a sum in excess of £10,000 a month.

the tiled floor at the Dar el Medina, via Flickr

the Dar ben Abdallah via commons.wikimedia

Dar el Medina stairs, via Flickr

Dar el Bey, via Lamsin Cultural Programme

Despite Leila Menchari's career, her travels and the fascinating people she’s met along the way, Princess Grace of Monaco and General Charles De Gaule to name a few, Menchari considers her most important role to be that of the keeper to the Hanson’s legacy. After Violet’s death, Leila watched over Jean, who eventually bequeathed their villa to her. Today she is just as devoted to the villa and its gardens, which inspired the perfume she created for Hermès, "Jardin en Méditerranée". Every summer, when Hermès reluctantly spares her for a month, she returns to Hammamet to reconnect with her past and remember where her dreams first took root. She is quoted as saying that she still thinks of herself as "just a guest" and says "I'm caught between two civilizations, two coasts of the Mediterranean. I bridge that gap". She continues to maintain the garden in all its untamed exuberance, with its broken columns, ancient stones, huge terracotta urns and random paving. Plants find their own way to survive. Lizards, frogs and birds make it as much their home as hers. Peacocks wander the terraces of Dar Henson and roman architectural fragments form the Henson's tomb.

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