Domaine du Bourg, 72510 Pontvallain, Francia
Taprobane Island, Sri Lanka
Maurice Talvande, Count de Mauny Talvande (self styled), (1866–1941) was a French-born naturalised British landscaper, furniture-maker, and self-inventor, who is best known as the owner and recreator of Taprobane Island, in Sri Lanka.
Born Maurice Talvande in Le Mans in 1866 to parents who were both commoners, de Mauny's father was Felix Talvande a middle-class bank official, and his mother Marguerite Adelaide Louise, née Froger de Mauny – a granddaughter of the genuine Count de Mauny, a title bestowed by Napoleon I on the French politician Dominique Clément de Ris.
He attended a Jesuit-run school in Canterbury, England. As a young man, described as "rather good looking", he travelled to America and England where, having assumed the more aristocratic-sounding name of Maurice de Mauny Talvande, he earned a little money giving drawingroom lectures on French château and château life. In 1897 he also gave an address in which he promoted the establishment of settlements for deprived and wayward young men.
In June 1898 de Mauny married Lady Mary Byng, daughter of the 4th Earl of Strafford, and a maid of honour to Queen Victoria, whom he may have met through her brother who had attended his school. There was talk that Lady Mary married de Mauny, who had no social position or fortune, due to her hostility to her father's second marriage to a wealthy American divorcee, Mrs Cora Colgate.
Shortly prior to his marriage de Mauny established a small boarding school for teenage boys from upper class English families seeking to polish their French. Situated at the rented Château Azay-le-Rideau in the Loire Valley, de Mauny relying on his wife's contacts to supply the dozen pupils. It was visited by Lord Lorne, and attended by the 2nd Duke of Westminster as a 19 year old. There were persistent rumours of sexual advances made to the pupils by de Mauny who, confronted by the Duke, admitted he was homosexual. Possibly due to this, but claiming he had never intended the château to be used as a school, in late 1898 the château's owner cancelled the lease. The Journal des Débats, considered the voice of the Gallic Establishment, called de Mauny a "vulgar marchand de soupe". The de Mauny Talvandes relocated to Cannes, where their first child Victor Alexander was born, then San Remo, before finally settling in England. They moved into a Queen Anne residence called "Terrick House", near Ellesbrough in Buckinghamshire. In 1900 their daughter Alexandra Mary was born.
It was around this time that de Mauny adopted the title of count. His mother provided the couple with a small allowance, reportedly "almost starving herself for his sake", and de Mauny falsely claimed he would inherit a large fortune on her death, which enabled the couple to obtain credit. His father had declared bankuptcy in 1890 following the collapse of his bank, and his parents had separated. Besides dabbling in a number of failed ventures, de Mauny edited an illustrated London newspaper the Crown. His wife sold her reminiscences as a former maid of honour to a popular journal The Quiver, a hitherto unprecedented breach of royal confidentiality which drew a public repudiation by Queen Victoria.
In 1899, the Earl of Strafford was decapitated by a train. While his entailed estate passed to the 5th Earl, he had willed the entire remainder of his wealth to his two daughters. Always in 1899, Charles Hammond Gibson Jr privately printed Two Gentlemen in Touraine, under the name of Richard Sudbury, a fictional romance about the relationship with de Mauny. In 1901 de Mauny's father died, and in 1907 his mother, leaving the family home in Pontvallain to de Mauny and his brother and sister. They shared the 17,000 francs that came from its sale. With the money, de Mauny separated from his wife for a year. Nevertheless, by 1909-10 he was forced to declare bankruptcy.
In 1912 de Mauny visited Ceylon for the first time, possibly as the guest of tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton. Further visits followed, and by 1920-1 he was residing in Columbo with his now 21-year-old son Victor.
Like many others, the Great War had left de Mauny severely dispirited. He authored a book of reflections The Peace of Suffering 1914-1918, and later wrote: "The war had taken everything from me. The whole of my being, both physical and moral, had lost its object in life. Paralysed, inert, it was incapable of effort because I had lost even the desire of effort. I was flickering out a living death, a life worse than death, because it no longer had the confidence of hope….It is to the East that I owe the awakening of the desire of effort; it is to my gardens of Taprobane that I owe the strength that has enabled me to transform the desire of effort into the reality of action, thanks to the peace and happiness which they have given me."
It was only after a long search for an earthly paradise that around 1925 de Mauny sighted "Galduwa" – "Rock Island" in Sinhalese, an islet in Weligama Bay, Ceylon that was an unkempt wilderness used by locals as a dumping ground for cobras. It was purchased by de Mauny for Rs.250 and he renamed it Taprobane, the ancient Greek name for Ceylon. The snakes were removed, he constructed a magnificent and picturesque villa that offered 360 degree views of the sea, and replanted the island into his vision of a private eden. The villa, its furniture and garden were all designed by de Mauny to be in perfect harmony. He described himself as having "an insatiable thirst for beauty" and "longing for perfection." Construction on the villa began in 1927. It featured a large domed octagonal central hall, called the Hall of the Lotus, which was lined with eight panels of inlaid wood dyed a dull gold and eau de Nil, and bearing a design of lotus buds and flowers. At the centre of the Hall was a large octagonal teak table carved with lotus leaves. The furniture was teak and Ceylonese woods upholstered in eau de Nil watered silk,the iron and brass balustrades ornamented with peakcocks, and the floors tiled in black and white marble inset with a rampant Singhalese lion. There were no walls, between rooms, only fabric scrims: the villa was designed as a completely open pavilion. De Mauny lived on the Island with a village boy, Raman, who helped tend the gardens and Gomez, his 'dressing boy'.
One journalist visitor wrote: "The man himself, the occupant of this dream home, remains to its visitors rather a mystery. They sum him up according to their own values in life. There are those who describe him as 'the made French Count who lives alone on his God-forsaken rock…Tiberius on Capri'. Others regard him with unconcealed envy and secret admiration for having so far left the world behind to gain the peace they sense in his home." Said de Mauny: "Mad? I am mad of course if to shape one's own life, to live it and love it is madness." De Mauny entertained a constant string of notable visitors, including Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Edwina Mountbatten, Countess Mountbatten of Burma and David Herbert.
De Mauny went on to establish a furniture manufacturing business 'Weligama Local Industries', and collaborated with a Hungarian interior decorator Mlle. Louie Borgia, to make over the homes of the wealthy in Colombo. The business partnership and furniture factory came to an end in the 1930s in the wake of the Great Depression.
However, de Mauny went on to become a successful landscape and gardening designer for many prominent homes in Colombo, authoring, as "Count de Mauny", The Gardens of Tapobane (dedicated to the Duchess of Sutherland) and Gardening in Ceylon.
Suffering from angina pectoris, de Mauny died of a heart attack in November 1941. Victor sold Taprobane Island in 1943 for Rs.1200. It later became property of Paul Bowles. Lady Mary, aka the Countess de Mauny Tavanade, died in 1947. Victor died in 1978 and his sister Alexandra in 1989. Both left no issue.
The author Robin Maugham, who visited the Island as a young man, and in the mid-1970s, considered the unique beauty and harmony of the villa had become compromised after de Mauny's death by partitioning and the loss of his furniture and fittings, and that the area itself had been despoiled by the construction of a new road along the mainland beach. Since then, and particularly after the 2004 tsunami, significant development of the adjoining mainland village has occurred.