Maugham photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1934

Maugham , photographed

by Carl Van Vechten in 1934

The gated entrance to La Mauresque

The gated entrance to La Mauresque

(Photo Ted Jones - ‘The Literary Riviera’)

The central courtyard at La Mauresque

The central courtyard at

La Mauresque

A Summons from Somerset Maugham

Before Barry Dierks could embark on his modernist designs for those clients who were open to such new ideas, he was more than grateful to receive his first commission in 1925, the same year his own Le Trident was being built. The commission was to remodel an existing house for the author Somerset Maugham whom Barry and Eric had met in the Ritz Bar in Paris. Maugham had bought a run-down Moorish-style house on Cap Ferrat, once owned by the confessor of King Leopold II, tyrant of the Belgian Congo. One imagines the King’s particular lifestyle and ruthlessness qualified him for absolution.

Cap Ferrat is one of the pearls of the Riviera, its peninsula thrusting itself into the sea between Nice and Monaco – more precisely between the smaller towns of Villefranche and Beaulieu. In spite of its rocky contours it has a verdant, almost mystic, beauty dotted with cypresses and umbrella pines. And it was here that Maugham bought 40,000 square meters of land in the Sémaphore, or lighthouse, area of the Cap.

Barry redesigned the overtly Moorish-style house into a fined-down version. While Maugham lived at the Villa Lawrence on the ramparts at Antibes, Barry swept away the façade, creating a two-story house of clean lines designed around a central courtyard open to the sky, where one could dine al fresco under the stars. Around this courtyard ran two galleries with French windows giving onto balconies. Barry’s lovely white vaulted ceiling graced the entrance hall, suspended above black floor tiles. From here a curved marble staircase led up to bedrooms and bathrooms. Inside the twelve meter long, high-ceilinged drawing room was installed a large fireplace of Arles stone. On the flat roof was Maugham’s very private writing room, plain and rectangular, whose only access was by a wooden staircase leading to the house. All was white and cool apart from the black tiles of the entrance.

Outside, Eric Sawyer designed an enchanting garden full of fruit trees and oleanders. At the bottom of the short curved drive which led up to a double front door, visitors were greeted by a sign that said ‘Beware of the agapanthus!’. Although Maugham himself was proud of his hard-to-maintain lawns, Barry and Eric would lure expatriate clients away from expanses of grass to embrace elegantly designed swimming pools. They were the first to launch the craze for garden pools and would place Maugham’s at the top of the garden, surrounded by shrubbery. On the wall at the entrance to the property was the house sign, created by Maugham and based on a Moorish  symbol designed to ward off the evil eye. A symbol also printed in the first edition of many of his books. 

For the rest of his life, punctuated by a second world war and much travelling, Cap Ferrat became Maugham’s only home. By the time he was settled at La Mauresque he was able to live his life as he wished, finally being divorced from his wife Syrie in 1929 on the grounds of incompatibility. He was a rich man and could maintain his status among the beau monde of the Riviera. Not universally liked but much sought-after, he settled down to hold court at the villa. Invitations were received gladly, although situations could occasionally become rather tense. Politicians, authors, artists, actors, socialites, as well as the odd title, all came for the splendid meals created by Maugham’s cook Annette and the comfort provided by the rest of the thirteen-strong staff. From Harpo Marx to Evelyn Waugh to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor they came. Matisse, Chagall and, later, Picasso were guests. In the late winter of 1927, a group of bright young things, which included the embryo photographer Cecil Beaton, the ‘decadent’ aesthete Stephen Tennant, and the artist Rex Whistler took the Villa Primavera on the Cap. Whistler, at twenty, was in the throes of painting the mural ‘In Pursuit of Rare Meats’ in the restaurant at the Tate Britain art gallery in London. Their presence surely enlivened  gatherings at La Mauresque.  Elegant dinners on the terrace were enjoyed on soft, balmy evenings among fireflies and the wafts of scent from orange blossom. People admired the important collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and other objects of interest and beauty that Maugham had collected over the years. One was well looked after. During the day there was tennis on the garden court and swimming in the pool. As Bryan Connon in his Maugham Dynasty wrote: ‘Beautiful but obscure young men were part of the scenery’ and bathing was invariably in the nude unless women were present.  As the author Beverley Nichols in A Case of Human Bondage remembered: ‘A young Noel Coward made his exits and his entrances in a flurry of white flannels’. Nichols, ever courteous apart from the odd breach of house etiquette, was always welcome at La Mauresque.  For as long as guests behaved comme il faut and didn’t irritate their host, visits were enjoyed and most left hoping to be invited again.

The crash of 1929 and Britain’s withdrawal from the Gold Standard in 1931 affected everyone, with the exception of some of the very rich. Maugham weathered the storm due to a constant stream of royalties and his relentless output of work. On 1 September 1939, after a number of increasingly stressful months, the German Army invaded Poland, a definite order for General Mobilisation was issued on 2 September and on the next day Britain and France declared war on Germany. In Strictly Personal Maugham describes walking around an almost deserted Cap Ferrat passing closed villas whose owners had fled.  Now wishing to contribute in some way to the war effort he was given a project, by the Ministry of Information in Britain, to write a series of articles on the French war effort and the attitude of the French towards the British. He visited London for several months before returning to tour France and assess the general feeling among the people. The situation in Eastern and Central Europe grew ever more threatening and day by day France grew more confused and unsettled.

By June 1940 Maugham knew he must escape. On 17  July two British cargo ships, the Saltersgate and the Ashcrest, were suddenly made available. The advice to leave now became an order to evacuate. If this chance was not taken the British government would accept no responsibility for the fate of those who remained – everyone was to be at the Cannes Customs House early on the following day. What everyone did not know was that the ships were two colliers – iron-decked, grimy coal boats from Liverpool, able to take only 1,000 refugees in total, and not equipped for those. Leaving his American lover Gerald Haxton in charge of La Mauresque and his possessions, Maugham left. On the two ships, of which the largest had quarters for a crew of only thirty-eight men, 1,300 were eventually crammed on board, the iron decks burning from a day at rest in the Mediterranean sun. There was little food, subsistence rations being tightly controlled.  Sleeping arrangements were on the decks of the ships, except for those who became ill during the voyage. In a sea full of Italian submarines, the two ships crossed the Mediterranean in the dark, eventually reaching Gibraltar and then England. The Saltersgate would survive the war but four months later the Ashcrest, carrying vital supplies to Britain from America, strayed from its convoy and was torpedoed, with the loss of its small crew of thirty-eight.  Maugham would spend the war years in America, scriptwriting for Hollywood films and writing articles and propaganda in favour of the Allies. In 1946 he  returned to a hungry and exhausted Riviera. The villa had  suffered  during the years of war. Although occupied by the French, Italians and the Germans, it was the Royal Navy who had caused the most damage while shelling the lighthouse on Cap Ferrat. Maugham would write that his house was ‘looking like a patient who has barely survived a deadly disease’.

After the necessary repairs, La Mauresque eventually settled down to its former disciplined and elegant rhythm.  Annette, Maugham’s treasured cook, had not left the house during the war and, using what supplies remained in the markets, produced meals to the best of her renowned ability. Maugham’s new secretary/lover Alan Searle did his job well, running their lives soberly and efficiently. Maugham began to travel once more, including trips to a Swiss clinic for the rejuvenating injections he swore by – and when in residence at Cap Ferrat guests came and went as before.  In 1954 he was made a Companion of Honour for his outstanding achievement in literature.

The end came in 1965.  Twice he had been nursed back to health from pneumonia at the Queen Victoria Hospital at Mont Boron in Nice. The matron Elsie Gladman, who had stayed on to nurse in the small Anglo-American Hospital in Cannes throughout the war, remembered Maugham in her book Uncertain Tomorrows. It seems he was a good, co-operative patient ‘but rather stubborn’. And he had always made it known to Miss Gladman that he did not wish to die in hospital but at La Mauresque. On his last stay at the hospital an ambulance was kept in readiness so this wish could be honoured. The building was besieged by journalists and it was ‘a round the clock job to keep them from entering the hospital’. At 2 am on the morning of December 16  the waiting ambulance, followed by a pack of journalists, took him back to La Mauresque where he died of congestion of the lungs. This is the version given by Miss Gladman which is in contradiction of other accounts, particularly that of Alan Searle’s, who wrote that Maugham had actually died in the hospital and, to avoid tiresome involvement with the relevant authorities, mandatory with hospital deaths, was whisked away in the small hours.  But it seems unlikely that Miss Gladman would have risked her position by allowing a dead patient to be removed and breaking French law in this respect. After cremation in Marseilles as he had requested, Maugham’s ashes were taken to England and interred in the grounds of the King’s School, Canterbury, where he had been far from happy but where he could now return triumphantly, complete with  honours.

Commissions for remodelling of other Riviera houses would come hot on the heels of La Mauresque, but it was not until the beginning of the 1930s that Barry’s talent for the pure white, flat-roofed, symmetrical or sinuous creations, so admired by architects today was allowed, in certain cases, to develop fully.


Copyright © Maureen Emerson

Somerset Maugham talks about his life and work and shows some of his Riviera garden in this splendid film compilation and tribute by   ‘MyMaughamCollection’.

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