The art of the perfect Norfolk pub

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Just before the Beast from the East hit North Norfolk and covered it with snow, we stayed at The Gunton Arms. A traditional pub and restaurant with 16 rooms for guests, each individually designed by acclaimed interior designer Robert Kime.

Already, you may gather The Gunton Arms is more than just your average foodie pub. And you’d be right. It was opened in 2011 by art dealer Ivor Braka, and is run by business partners Stuart and Simone Tattersall, who have previously worked for restaurateur Mark Hix among others, so the food on offer matches the exquisite perfection of the décor. It’s set in a deer park, from where the venison served in the restaurant is sourced, while many of the other ingredients are every bit as local.

Then there’s the art. Ivor brought with him his unique art collection, the like of which is rarely seen outside of galleries. So, among the old-world pub fittings you’ll find works by Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Lucian Freud and many others. Outside, you’ll discover sculptures by Ernesto Neto, Anthony Caro, Sol Le Witt and more.

Not that the art is provided purely by artists of the last 50 years – there’s a Landseer print over the fireplace, the hall contains 18th and 19th century satirical sketches, and you’ll also see paintings by naïve, untutored artists. a particular passion for Ivor.

Every room, from the bar to the loos, has its own art pieces, all carefully considered in every detail.

If you’re an art-lover looking for somewhere unusual to stay in the beautiful countryside around Cromer, or just fancy an excellent meal while you’re in the area, we can’t recommend The Gunton Arms more highly.

We spoke to Stuart and Simone to find out a little more:

Could you tell us a little about the history of The Gunton Arms?

Originally the Steward’s House for the estate manager in the 19th century, where Lily Langtry would stay when King Edward VII was visiting the estate while he would stay at Gunton Hall with the Suffield family. It has been a family home, occupied by the army during WWII, a residential care home, and before Ivor bought it, a rundown country house hotel in need of a new lease of life.

How did the two of you meet Ivor?

We were introduced by Mark Hix when Ivor bought what is now The Gunton Arms. Hix was always aware of our desire to move out of London and to get our teeth stuck into a project, and so, when Ivor was looking for a chef and manager, the partnership was forged on the two-hour train ride from London to Norwich.

Did you have any previous association with the local area?

Ivor has had a house here at Gunton for over thirty years and has been instrumental in returning the deer park back to its former glory over that time. But for Stu and I the first time we visited was on the train with Ivor and the second time was with a van full of our belongings leaving Dalston!

You both previously worked for Mark Hix. Did that provide a good grounding for running a pub?

I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the instant success of The Gunton Arms. It just shot off like a rocket. But, yes, Hix was a fantastic training ground for hospitality, and Mark and the rest of the team have always been hugely supportive. The chop houses of London were the beginning of what we now associate with a modern pub, so the step wasn’t a huge one to make with regards to the style of the food we offer.

What comes first at The Gunton Arms, art or food?

That depends on your appetite! I really think they are synonymous with each other. Our guests experience sitting in beautiful surroundings eating fantastic food, we have a great wine list, and the conversation is usually drawn to the art. Naturally, we do have guests who visit specifically to view the art.

There’s a very eclectic selection of art on display at The Gunton Arms. How is it decided which piece goes where?

Ivor wanted to create a feeling of an escape from a traditional pub. But as you enter the front entrance hall, there are portraits of the Suffield family from the 18th Century which are very conventional, with the only hint of what is to come in the reworking of an old master of a woman with a bruised eye by German artist Anselm Kiefer.

As you head through to the bar you are greeted by a dominant painting of a stag, The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Landseer, which again is an ironic statement deliberately placed to be subversive before unveiling contemporary artists as you move through the dining spaces and toilets.

The pace is deliberately structured and, by mixing styles, gives the sense of surprise and excitement. Ivor has also used visual rhymes, for instance between the Joana Vasconcelos porcelain crab encased in its lacy prison rhyming with the Nobuyoshi Araki ‘Self, Life and Death’ photograph with the knot-work used to suspend the model by ropes. There are visual puns that crisscross between the pieces that become greater together than their individual parts. The theme linking all the pieces is life, death, and sex, which Ivor would say is the essence of life. Paired with his enjoyment of great food and drink, he feels he has created his own personal Valhalla.

Is this the entirety of Ivor’s collection, or does he have other pieces elsewhere?

No, it is a small proportion of his extensive collection.

Ivor has talked about the importance of gallery owner and art dealer Andras Kalman in shaping his interest in art, particularly that of untrained artists. Could he tell us a little more about him?

Kalman met Ivor’s father on a tennis court in Manchester. Andras became Ivor’s mentor in childhood in all things artistic. As a Hungarian political refugee Kalman loved all things British and treasured the freedoms he perceived the British to have. He had an exaggerated love of native life –churches, pubs, the aristocracy. And with Ivor being born to parents of Lebanese heritage arriving in Britain after WWI, and not feeling totally English himself, he treasures things that are or used to be English – carnival, grotesquery, stability, conservativism, a love of England.

Are there any pieces Ivor has his eye on to add to the collection?

There may be substitutions, but the relationship between the pieces is more important to the narrative than its individual pieces. As Ivor says, “The artwork has settled into a chain of meaning greater than the sum of its individual parts”.

How was Robert Kime selected to design the rooms?

Ivor’s ex-wife Sarah Graham was keen for Robert to be involved, and Ivor had known Robert independently for 30 years. The reason was Robert’s creative take on country house style, his willingness to use old fabrics, mix textures and bring a look together in a surprising way – a design that looks like it’s not designed.

Have you discovered any local artists, old or new, since taking over the pub?

Yes, Mary Newcomb who displayed an affinity with English folk art and a grasp of nature and natural science. And more recently, Paul Hart, a photographer who again has a grasp of nature, and values trees immensely in his interpretation of eerie, ravaged farmland landscapes.

What are your future plans for The Gunton Arms?

To maintain a high quality local pub with a creative kitchen.