£6m facelift for Coco Chanel’s Highland love nest
IT IS known as the only property outside continental Europe with an interior by Coco Chanel and long thought to be the home of Scotland’s first bidet.
Now the 20-room Highland mansion which served as the love nest of the French designer and one of her richest admirers is in line for a £6 million facelift as a boutique hotel.
A Scottish architect firm has been asked to restore Rosehall House in Sutherland, where Chanel stayed during the 1920s as mistress of the 2nd Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor, then Britain’s wealthiest man, who was known to friends as Bendor, after the family crest which features a Bend Or, or gold band.
Architecture firm Bell Ingram Design has been appointed to lead the project and wants to revive Chanel’s designs. Although the 20-room mansion has been uninhabited for more than 50 years, enough remains of Chanel’s ideas to provide a template.
Remnants of Chanel’s deep beige wallpaper remain, along with her simple wooden fireplaces, hand-painted French floral wallpaper, and green cloakroom colour scheme. She also designed the bathrooms, which included the first bidet to be installed in Scotland.
Bell Ingram director Iain Cram said: “While it will be impossible to save all the features, we have a real chance to restore this cultural gem to something like its former glory. Our aim is to work very closely with planners to try to utilise every possible remaining feature of the building to ensure its conservation, as well as preserving the influence of Chanel as far as possible.”
The first job, said Cram, would be to stop the rain pouring into the property, which is suffering from “chronic water penetration” with multiple leaks. “We have to save the building, reassemble the building and then go on to the fit-out,” Cram added. “There is a tremendous amount of work to be done.”
In 1923, Chanel, the daughter of a laundrywoman who become a global fashion icon with her hats, styles and perfumes while enticing a string of wealthy lovers, was introduced to the Duke of Westminster in Monte Carlo at the age of 42. His income from vast property holdings was said to be a guinea a minute. Their affair was to last until 1930, but when asked why she never married him, Chanel famously replied: “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Mademoiselle Chanel.”
The duke paid for her French Riviera villa, where guests included painters Pablo Picasso and Pierre Bonnard, and which went on the market last year for £35 million. But the pair – who shared rabidly antisemitic views – also lived together in Scotland, counting Dundee MP Winston Churchill, who stayed there to recuperate from an illness in 1928, among their guests at Rosehall, 50 miles north of Inverness. Chanel’s biographer, Justine Picardie traced how they spent three summers together on the estate on the banks of the River Cassley.
As a style icon, Chanel pioneered everything from sun tans to trousers for women, while her Chanel No 5 fragrance first appeared in 1921. There are later signs of Scotland’s influence in her fabric designs, from luxuriously soft cashmeres and tweeds to the duke’s two-tone shoes.
It appears she was given a free hand to redecorate the house. The paintwork in public rooms matches the colours of parts of her Paris apartment while the downstairs cloakrooms boast an unusual shade of green with green glass tiling. The hand-painted French floral designs in the bedrooms are also thought to date from Chanel’s time while the famous bidet is actually a Shanks model, made in Glasgow for export.
“There’s very little trace of Chanel style but there is colour and texture,” Cram said. “There is some trace and probably enough to re-establish it. We know how extensive it was and because she was working with the original building, we don’t need much to recreate it.
“It’s very muted beiges but also pinstripes, which would have been very radical for its day. The colour schemes she had in place wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary boutique hotel.”
Mal Burkinshaw, the head of fashion at Edinburgh College of Art, said designers could look for inspiration to the Chanel house at Rue Cambon in Paris, where she first opened a boutique. “It is exquisitely chic and opulent, and almost an authentic aristocratic rural French style,” he said.
The duke sold Rosehall in 1928 as his affair with Chanel gradually cooled. She died in 1971, aged 87. The duke predeceased her in 1953, aged 73. The buyers were the Graesser family from Wales who ran it as their retreat until the 1960s when they left it untended.
Bell Ingram is about to submit a planning application for the property to Highland Council. A Salford businessman first bought it for development, largely on the allure the Chanel connection brings. He has now been replaced by a group of Birmingham businessmen who are backing the scheme to turn the main house into a hotel and build eight catered apartments at a discreet distance.
“Without the Chanel connection, it would be in danger of terminal decline,” Cram added. “There are a lot of buildings in Scotland that are in a similar state that don’t have the chance that Rosehall’s got.”