Rooms with a private view
PUBLISHED: 12:34 14 October 2014 | UPDATED: 12:34 14 October 2014
Robert and Clare Gough have turned their luxury hotels in Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds into eclectic art houses. Tessa Allingham tracked them down after a recent auction foray
“Sorry, we’ll have to rearrange the appointment.” The Gough Hotels marketing director is apologetic. “Robert and Clare are buying at auction.”
Not much comes between Mr and Mrs Gough and buying art, so we agree to meet a week later at the couple’s Salthouse Harbour hotel on Ipswich marina. By then an Elisabeth Frink screenprint entitled Green Man is already hanging, appropriately, in the Green Room at the Goughs’ other property, the Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds.
“There’s a massive chandelier in that room [it is vast – glass pendants hanging so low as to almost touch the table], so I wanted something simple but still striking for the wall,” says Clare Gough, the artistic, theatrical, unconventional eye behind the Gough Hotels brand. She spends a lot of time trawling auction houses online, looking out for pictures, sculptures, objets, things that are quirky, beautiful, funny, kitsch, colourful, local, tactile, or just downright wacky.
“We used to go to Columbia Road in London and round Hoxton before it became so fashionable, and you used to find great stuff on eBay.” She indicates some defiantly kitsch china swans on one windowsill of the Salthouse dining room, and some smooth ovoid stones with natural swirls of black through the deep brown background on another. “We got the stones in India, but you can get them in Liberty now. A lot has gone mainstream. You have to work harder to find things that are truly original.”
At the Salthouse, the fruits of Clare’s and her husband’s shopping sprees are to be seen everywhere. The hotel, a converted warehouse that the couple opened in 2003 and extended in 2008, surprises and excites at once. “Someone once gave me the greatest compliment,” says Robert, “they said this place could be dropped into any city in the UK and it would fit in.”
Looking down on diners from the bare brick walls are two vast paintings, including the very first piece the Goughs bought, a picture of a lady in red – called Praying – by the Russian artist, Natacha Ivanova. “It was clear we were on the right lines when [the actor] Robert Lindsay rang up wanting to come and have a look at the picture hanging here. He had regretted not buying it!” says Robert.
Round the corner a table is overhung with a plaster unicorn’s head, its mane plaited into a thick Rapunzel-like rope. It hangs between a bear and a rhino. And at reception, a giant metal scorpion (it’s a lamp in disguise), perched on a recycled metal coffee table, curls a stinging tail over its shiny back. A piece of naive art, The Greeting, by the Icelandic (but now local) artist, Karolina Larusdottir, hangs above the scorpion, the fiery orange in the picture picked up in an orange leather sofa, orange-trimmed cushions, and even an orange hue to the ground-level lighting. “It’s about layering,” Robert explains. “Everything sits together well to create an overall look, the art on the walls, the lighting, the music.”
There’s layering round the corner too where a flamboyantly colourful silicon squiggle painting hangs on a dramatic black backdrop and above a lime green sofa that picks out the same colour in the painting. The piece is by young Royal Academy graduate, Anthony Francis,
one of the many emerging artists to have space on the hotel walls.
Art is not the preserve of the public spaces at the Salthouse, however. Bedrooms – mod cons are de rigueur of course, and the harbour views are spectacular – all have a smattering of art, whether a carved wooden headboard from India, some gritty, black and white photographs of the undeveloped Ipswich marina, or lamps in the form of pelicans.
“Art in hotels is, in general, very, very dull,” says Robert. “In this part of the world you’ll get a bit of repro Gainsborough or the odd print of the The Hay Wain. I knew we could do better. I wanted to bring the best of art and design to Suffolk. You don’t achieve that by hiring a flashy interior designer and spending loads on fancy furniture. The Frink prints were in the hundreds of pounds, not thousands, but they are chosen for that space because of the connection with Bury, the colour, and the style. And we like them too of course.”
Robert calls the Salthouse his “incubator for ideas”. He clearly has plenty of these, though he insists that his wife is the one with the true creative talent. “I have to hang in there to keep up with her,” he laughs. More often than not they share similar tastes – “he does love his 60s stuff, though!” Clare winces – but when minds don’t meet, it’s hers that wins.
“I definitely have the final look of a room or a space in my head right from the outset,” says Clare. “People working with me sometimes can’t see it, and then they’re surprised when it comes together. I know all along it’ll turn out well!”
Guests seem to appreciate the couple’s efforts.
“We get some great feedback,” says Robert. “People really enjoy the art. It creates a conversation point and, whether they like a piece or not, it forces a reaction. People like being challenged and offered something out of the ordinary, and that’s what we’ve tried to create here.”