Eccentric luxury meets eclectic art at this brilliantly stylish Braemar hotel
If Tim Burton was pals with Wes Anderson and Vivienne Westwood, I reckon the Fife Arms is where they’d hang out. The hotel, in the Aberdeenshire village of Braemar, has recently opened following a four-year programme of renovation and restoration and is already drawing visitors from around the world.
Its owners, Iwan and Manuela Wirth, are the influential duo behind the Swiss contemporary art gallery Hauser & Wirth (which has outposts in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, New York and London). They’ve worked with Moxon Architects and Russell Sage Studio, as well as a host of world-renowned artists and makers, to transform this former Victorian coaching inn into a destination worthy of a starring role in its own movie.
So how did an art world power couple end up here, deep in the wilds of the Cairngorms National Park? The Wirths were struck by the landscape’s similarities with their Swiss homeland, and soon established a deep connection with the area. They’re not the first to fall in love with it – Queen Victoria escaped to Balmoral as often as she could. In fact, an original watercolour by the Queen, depicting a stag shot by John Brown, hangs in the hall.
It’s just one of an incredible 14,000 pieces of art – contemporary and traditional, antiques and installations, commissioned and collected – in the Fife Arms. Take afternoon tea by the roaring log fire and you’ll soon spot an original Picasso or Freud on the wall. Out in the courtyard, a Louise Bourgeois Spider sits amid heather-clad roofs that lead the eye out to the wild, craggy vistas beyond.
The commissioned works are no less interesting and many have been inspired by the Scottish landscape. Guillermo Kuitca’s mural in the dining room, for instance, is said to mirror the movement of the river that runs through the village.
The art extends to the 46 bedrooms, which are grouped by theme but all relate to Braemar and all with their own identity; the Royal suites are the grandest (and most expensive), there are ‘Scottish Culture’ rooms and ‘Nature and Poetry’ rooms. Among the latter is one inspired by the poet Nan Shepherd. When it was being inspected prior to opening, it was noticed that an artwork in this room had been hung upside down. Artist Susie Leiper had taken this sentiment from Shepherd’s seminal work, The Living Mountain, to take a view of the world by bending over and looking through your legs.
It’s this kind of detail, executed by a fastidious team led by Russell Sage at Russell Sage Studio, that puts the Fife Arms in a league of its own. There isn’t a corner that hasn’t been considered, decorated or woven into its location. General manager Federica Bertolini moved to Braemar four years ago to immerse herself in the village and the local community during the restoration work. She knows and understands every inch of the hotel and its contents as if her own family had lived here for generations.
For her, a stroll through its corridors is like experiencing time travel, where a cocktail in Elsa’s Bar whisks you back to the 1940s when American Vogue editor Frances Farquharson (who married Captain Alywn, laird of the neighbouring Invercauld estate) would party with her friend Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian designer (and Coco Chanel’s biggest rival); or socialite Princess Frances Dolgorouki, who from 1897 rented the nearby Braemar Castle for years so she could host parties with the royals, keen to be seen mixing in the right circles.
The very bones of this post-traditional paradise tell stories of the past, and the commitment through art and design to keep those tales alive is both an admirable venture and a wholly satisfying, super-stylish experience. And the visitors it attracts will hopefully go on to create new tales for future generations to cherish.
Photography Sim Canetty-Clarke
Words Catherine Coyle