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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Taprobane Island

Weligama Bay, Sri Lanka

At a speech in Dhaka in 1985, Geoffrey Bawa observed: “everything is at the same level; if the world were only flat, you’d see Africa on the horizon”. Similar thoughts must have occurred to Maurice de Mauny Talvande fifty years earlier when he purchased a small island in Weligama Bay, just two hundred yards off the south coast of Sri Lanka. The self-styled “Count de Mauny”, a charismatic rogue born in Le Mans in 1866, fled Europe amid a whirl of financial and sexual scandals on the eve the Great War, staying in Ceylon with the tea magnate, Sir Thomas Lipton. Further lengthy visits occurred periodically during and after the war and, by 1920, he had an address at Cinnamon Gardens in Colombo. In 1922 he purchased the future “Taprobane Island” for a mere 250 rupees and began constructing the neo-Palladian villa shortly afterwards. He described his first encounter with the island in his book, “The Gardens of Taprobane”.

“Shall I ever forget that morning in September when, quite by chance, I first saw Weligama Bay, and in the centre of it the red granite rock, covered with pink and jungle scrub, rising from the Indian Ocean: an emerald in a setting of coral pink. I swam across the narrow strait, scrambled over rocks and briars, and reached the top of the rock. The view from here was admirable. Below me was the Bay outspreading its long arms towards the Ocean, until they were lost in the far distance. The coral reefs, sparkling with the diamonds of the spray; the sea, turquoise blue, streaked with amethyst-purple. Beyond, far beyond, the bare horizon; there was nothing between me and the South Pole”.

The two-acre island is only accessed via the sea. At high tide one is obliged to wade through waist deep water; otherwise it is a soft walk on white sand. The villa, now owned by an English businessman, Geoffrey Dobbs, is a white, octagonal, open sided pavilion set on the island’s pinnacle, with generous verandahs running around all sides. A cavernous entrance hall occupies the north side of the building, with separate doorways leading to the bedrooms, bathrooms, dining room and verandahs. Framed by high, teakwood ceilings, stark white walls and a polished white terrazzo floor, the refreshingly shabby interior resembles a set-piece from a 1930s Roman epic. Furniture of predominantly colonial French origin abounds, from the jakwood four poster beds to the dining table. On the wall hangs miscellaneous works by artists such as Saskia Pringers, Putu, David Paynter and Douglas Johnson.

Maurice died suddenly of a heart attack in 1941 and his son, Victor, sold the island the following year. In 1952 the American writer, Paul Bowles, began a three year self-internment on the island, during which he wrote his most successful novel, “The Spider’s House”, incorporating the building as one of the principal settings in the book. In his diary, he wrote of early-morning tours of the garden, “the sun, although scarcely risen above the headlands to the east, is already giving off an intimate, powerful heat, and the distant flotillas of fishing boats later slip past the white line of the reefs into the open sea, their furled sails like the dorsal fins of giant sharks”. Arthur C. Clarke, Peggy Guggenheim and the Moroccan artist Ahmed Yakoubi were among those who came to visit the island during Bowles’ tenure.

The present owner has added a garden suite, “The Glass Room” in 2001, and a modest infinity pool overlooking the ocean. But it is with the rising sun that Taprobane and its sumptuous tropical garden truly flourishes. There is a deep sense of history here, of ghosts who once dreamed and laughed from these same terraces.

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