2019 Platinum List Focus: Fife Arms

A pair of prominent gallerists bring art and design to a renovated 19th-century inn in the Scottish Highlands

WORDS Bre Graham
September/ October 2019
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Sometimes when traveling, the journey is as important as the destination. A drive through the rugged landscape of the Scottish Highlands, past electric-purple heather moors, dark pine forests and salmon-filled rivers, is an experience of breathtaking beauty. It’s this scenery that inspired the influential Swiss art dealers Manuela and Iwan Wirth to buy the Fife Arms in Braemar and transform it into one of the world’s most exciting hotels.

Built in 1856—the year Queen Victoria completed the neighboring Balmoral Castle and made Scotland a sought-after destination—the Fife Arms originally served as a grand hunting lodge. At the behest of the Duke and Duchess of Fife, it was remodeled in the late 19th century by renowned Scottish architect Alexander Marshall Mackenzie. Over the decades, however, it devolved from a coaching inn into a dilapidated hotel before the Wirths committed to restoring it to its original architectural glory, complete with a multimillion-dollar contemporary art collection, two restaurants, cocktail bar and tearoom.


The drawing room, featuring Zhang Enli’s ceiling painting Ancient Quartz

“It’s worth the trip,” says the doorman as I enter the surreal but spectacular lobby after the drive from Aberdeen. As you would expect from the couple behind Hauser & Wirth—a powerhouse gallery with ten locations from Hong Kong to London, Los Angeles to New York—art is intrinsic to the property. When the Wirths acquired the hotel in 2014, they invited some of their artists to devise site-specific works for the space. For example, in the drawing room where traditional afternoon tea is served, guests find Chinese artist Zhang Enli’s stunning ceiling painting Ancient Quartz (2018), inspired by local minerals and the topography of the village.

Sipping my Earl Grey underneath Zhang’s sweeping sky, I can hear American artist Mark Bradford’s Apollo/Still Shining (2015), a bleached- and burnt-looking piano playing a specially commissioned piece by Grammy Award-winning composer Robert Glasper. Each artwork is integral to the ambience, from an 1874 pencil and watercolor image of a stag by Queen Victoria to Lucian Freud’s 1962 Child Portrait (Annie) in the lobby and a Louise Bourgeois Spider (1994) in the courtyard. Even the spa is embellished with huge panels featuring Bharti Kher’s installation Cipher (2018).

Containing more than 14,000 individual antiques, artworks and furnishings, the Fife Arms could seem more like a museum than a hotel, but the impression conveyed is one of warmth and comfort. “The Wirths wanted it to feel like a home, not a hotel,” says Ronald McKay, one of the property’s art ambassadors. “You can drink tea and eat scones beneath a Picasso. You can’t do that in a gallery.”


Characters of Braemar by Gideon Summerfield, in The Flying Stag bar

This attitude is echoed in Russell Sage’s interiors, which combine deep, rich tones with soft textures. “Everyone’s enthusiasm for such an unusual project was infectious,” Sage says. “There was a feeling of momentum to make it really outstanding. To get to design a room around a Zhang Enli ceiling and a Picasso was an absolute delight. However, it was the quieter spaces, such as the corridors and the gorgeous library with the Queen Victoria waxwork from Madame Tussauds, which created little moments of joy.”

Each of the 46 guest rooms is unique. Some are named after famous Highlands visitors such as Lord Byron, Robert Louis Stevenson and American fashion editor Frances Farquharson, wife of the Baron of Invercauld, whose room contains her original letters penned at the neighboring Invercauld Castle. The one-of-a-kind, Bloomsbury-inspired Artist’s Studio features a cabin bed and spectacular views of the Cairngorms National Park. Four Royal Suites—with antiques, fireplaces and freestanding copper bathtubs—honor personalities from Queen Victoria to Abdul Karim, her loyal Indian attendant.


the German Emperor’s Suite

A traditionally gendered division of space is explored with nuance at the Fife Arms. The drawing room, where once women would have retired after dinner, balances masculine and feminine features with soft velvet florals and walls wrapped in dark-green custom tartan created by Edinburgh designer Araminta Campbell. The bar next door—Elsa’s, named after fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, a regular guest and friend of the Farquharsons—would once have been full of Victorian leather chairs and cigar smoke. It is now a light-filled art deco space flushed with her signature “shocking pink.” Coasters depicting high-heeled shoes, 1920s-style furniture, Man Ray portraits of Schiaparelli, and a disco ball combine to make it one of the hotel’s most fun rooms.

“The curation of antiques, art and rare objects into a singular story about the area is intoxicating to guests,” says Sage. “One of the greatest comments from visitors checking out is that they will have to come back as they didn’t see everything.” After a few days luxuriating amongst what now feels like my personal art collection, I don’t know how I’ll go back to hotels with plain white walls.


 

To discover the 2019 Platinum List Awards for Best Country House Hotel, click here

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