Celebrating a century of the Art Deco style, Giles Fuchs, Owner at Burgh Island Hotel, showcases the remarkable house that has become a monument to its era
Art deco is a century old. Unlike most styles that have faded over time, there’s something eternally modern about Art Deco. When it first rose to popularity in the 1920s – a blending of Bauhaus, Art Nouveau, Cubism, and something new mixed in – Art Deco was the movement of the moment, the veritable epitome of modernity. Its bright materials and playful spirit seemed to encapsulate a period where everything was a new adventure – or so we can believe from the bright young things of the time – and still today Art Deco art and architecture fills a space with a spirit of vitality.
In the latter half of the 1920s, when the decade of decadence was in full swing and Art Deco design had begun to gain prominence, a Marylebone-born film producer made the decision to purchase some land down in Devonshire. Archibald Nettlefold – founder of what later became known as Walton Studios – acquired Burgh Island as a private retreat from which to host his wild and, often, week-long parties.
Where the tidal island had once been home to just a 14th-century pub and a prefabricated house (installed there in the 1890s by music hall star George H. Chirgwin), in 1927 Nettlefold commissioned the construction of a new building, a Great White Palace with all the trimmings of the modern age. Burgh Island House (which a few years later became Burgh Island hotel) encapsulated the Art Deco spirit of the time; and even now, almost a century later, the atmosphere of glitz and glamour remains strong in the hotel’s design.
The Epitome of Modernity
“Picture the most up-to-date Hotel in Europe!” Have you pictured it? If you’re a holiday maker in the 1930s, then you’re likely imagining somewhere that looks and feels a lot like Burgh Island.
The line comes from a promotional piece for the hotel, published in The Bystander in 1931. Advertorial licence aside, it makes its point clear: at the height of the Art Deco era, Burgh Island was undeniably à la mode. The hotel has seen a number of refurbishments and restorations since then. In the 1940s, the building suffered significant damaged when it was bombed only days after Churchill and Eisenhower visited.
Palm Court Bar
Four decades later, millionaire husband and wife Tony and Beatrice Porter found the property in a state of disrepair and set about restoring the great palace. Their trials and tribulations – from uncooperative elevators to boilers on the blink – eventually saw the hotel restored to its former glory, and the couple continued to run it until the early 2000s. More recently in 2018 when I bought the hotel, it underwent a multi-million-pound refurbishment to ensure the glamour of the 1920s was kept alive right into our current decade.
Burgh Island is nothing if not eccentric. This coastal hotel is awash with features that reflect its nautical surroundings, from the naturally formed Mermaid Pool where guests can enjoy a dip in the salt water, to the locally sourced fish served in the Grand Ballroom Restaurant. Moreover, the hotel’s décor does not fail to match this maritime mood: in the playful spirit of the Art Deco period, the south side of the hotel is designed in the shape of a ship.
What’s behind this ship shape wall is even more exciting. In the 1820s, the British warship HMS Ganges first entered the navy and enjoyed over a hundred years spent at sea. After she was decommissioned and broken up in 1930, small pieces of the boat’s timber were sold as souvenirs. Like many other collectors at the time, Archibald Nettlefold jumped at the chance to acquire a part of sea legend; except that the famous film director had no intention of buying just a small piece of the ship. The room that’s now known as The Nettlefold Restaurant – one of the hotel’s two dining spaces – was in fact built out of the captain’s cabin of the HMS Ganges.
Chevrons and Lacquer
Even today, the century-old hotel retains the glamour of its 1930s beginnings. Each of the rooms – public spaces and private bedrooms – preserve the Art Deco spirit, and it’s not hard to imagine the hotel’s celebrity guest, Agatha Christie, enjoying a cocktail in the Palm Court Bar – though a non-alcoholic one of course, since Christie was a lifelong teetotaller! A haunt of famous authors, the Palm Court is also home to Burgh’s most famous architectural feature, the dome ceiling, comprised of 2,500 panes of multicoloured glass, designed to mimic the plumes of a peacock’s tail.
Along the hallway from the bar is the hotel’s Grand Ballroom, where black-tie diners can still enjoy their dinner to the sound of piano music and against a backdrop that is quintessentially Art Deco. A stepped lintel made from polished metal sits over the doorway into the room, while wall paintings showing lively scenes of drinking and dancing reflect the idealised atmosphere of the Roaring 20s.
Christie Room, the bathroom
The Art Deco atmosphere rises through the ceiling of the ballroom and to the bedrooms above. Baths rather than showers, radios rather than televisions, all help to maintain the atmosphere of the 1930s. This ambience is further flavoured by little individual details, from the original 1930s’ furniture to the names of the rooms – famous guests from Noel Coward to Nancy Cunard and many others. During Burgh Island’s most recent refurbishment in 2019, we worked closely with one of the world’s leading Art Deco specialists, Simon Kirby, and interior designer Sam Kopsch to ensure that all of our updates stayed true to the hotel’s architectural heritage. Meanwhile, our ongoing relationship with Mark Raby, designer at leading conservation and historical architect firm, Johnathan Rhind, gives us the insight and support to celebrate Art Deco throughout every aspect of the hotel.
No two rooms are the same: some have sea views, others look over the bay, some have their own lounges while there are one or two where the bathrooms constitute the pièce de resistance. Indeed, a guest at Burgh Island could visit the hotel again and again and have a different experience each time – but what remains forever unchanged, is the eternal modernity of the island’s Art Deco character.
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