InigoInigo Logo

A Private View: a house of ideas on the Kentish coast

Artist Pablo Bronstein has turned the house in Deal he shares with his partner, the poet Leo Boix, into an extraordinary set piece of sorts, against which the ideas that fuel both their creative practices play out. As it comes on the market, the couple discuss life and art in the seaside town

Grace McCloud
Adam Firman
A Private View: a house of ideas on the Kentish coast

They say opposites attract. In the case of artist Pablo Bronstein and his partner, the poet Leo Boix, the maxim seems to be proving true. “It’s quite rare to see Pablo up and about at this time,” says a wry Leo, sprightly after a swim in the sea. Leo is a morning person, he tells us. Every day he walks the 65m from his front door down to Deal’s shingle shore and goes for a dip, come rain, shine or snow. Pablo does not.

Leo, originally from Buenos Aires, is also a minimalist, while Pablo – who was likewise born in Argentina – is… well. Not. We’re with them at home, a 17th-century warren of rooms that in the 12 years they’ve been here has been transformed into something of a fantasia. With its convincingly Georgian kitchen, its Old Masterish portraits and its Chinese room – a confection of turquoise gloss, chartreuse fabric-covered walls and fine porcelain – Shirley House feels entirely baroque in sensibility, if not proportion.

Eccentrically anachronistic but not slavish to any particular period – “I think the basics are rooted in the 17th and 18th centuries” – this remarkable “encrusted” jewel box of a house seems a natural home for an artist known for his extraordinary drawings of imagined architecture, which careen from the ravishingly rococo to the wildly overweening. Yet somehow it’s as fitting for the poet too; Leo’s quiet study – book-lined and faintly chaotic – is the paragon of a writer’s eyrie.

Can we assume that all the decorative derring-do is Pablo’s handiwork? “In one way,” the artist replies, pensively. “I mean, yes: I choose most of the colours; I drive those kinds of decisions. And I certainly do the buying – I’ve got a bit of problem in that area… But Leo has been a great architect of it all too.”

Where Pablo creates, Leo says he “inhabits the spaces more, I study them, occasionally move something around.” He does admit to finding constant redecoration unsettling. “I don’t like change – and Pablo is all about change!” he cries. “I am very attached to what he has made here, not least as it has fed my work enormously.”

What becomes clear in our conversation is that there is an unceasing discourse between these two people, their worlds and their work – one which has played out with this house as both backdrop and collaborator. It begs the question, then: with the house now on the market, what will life – and work – be like after Middle Street? Neither quite knows. London beckons – as does a desire to cut down on Pablo’s collections – “though whether I’m capable of that remains to be seen.” Leo admits he’ll find it hard, not least losing the sea, but the time is right – and change is good. “Houses are stage sets, ultimately,” Pablo agrees, “and you can live the rest of your life in them, trying all the ways you can not to think about that too much. Or you can accept that, while we create these little worlds around us, we ourselves remain mobile, ready for the next.”

Pablo: “We came across this house in 2011. It’s hard to imagine now but it was a very boring holiday let that had been stripped of a lot of its period details. The building had been known locally for its elaborate woodwork and its beautiful decoration – much of which had disappeared. But there was enough there to give us a clue as to what needed to be done.”

Leo: “It was not nice; I was not convinced at all. But I could see it had captured Pablo’s attention. I watched him walking around, inspecting the panelling and pulling up bits of carpet to see if there were floorboards beneath… Eventually he won me over.”

Pablo: “It’s true – though Deal had originally been Leo’s idea. The funny thing is, he didn’t even know he liked swimming that much until we moved here. Now he’s in there about five times a day.

“The connection this house has with the sea is brilliant. We’re not on the shoreline itself, so you don’t get the weather blowing into your face, or the tourists traipsing past your sitting-room window, but we’re one street behind with a view straight down to the water. And we’re blessed with a garden, which means the beach isn’t our only outdoor space.

“We had a huge amount of work to do to the house when we got here. It’s taken about 10 years, I think, not least as I’ve done most of it myself in between exhibitions – albeit with the help of two or three very trusted local tradesmen. I’ve used the house as a kind of palette, in some ways; I’ll think about ideas for drawings while I’m working on the house – and the one feeds into the other. I’ve noticed, for instance, how as I’ve repainted Chinese room, the same colours have entered my art.

“Leo’s work, meanwhile, is somehow more grounded in its relationship to the house. It’s certainly less fanciful and the connection is perhaps more straightforward.”

Leo: “I’ve written a lot about this house and about the town. In fact, I think I may have written the first ode to Deal in history.

“The town has always been a bit of a bubble for me and Pablo. We have a small flat in London, which we use as a base for more the more social side to our creative practices – shows, or poetry readings, for instance – but being here has allowed us to indulge in our work intensively. Not least Pablo; his studio here is 5x5m – we could never have afforded that in London.”

Pablo: “We don’t know much about the house itself. It was built in the 17th century and its façade was added in the 19th. With its tall roofline and high basement height, I would have said it’s a good-quality William and Mary house, rather than an early Charles II one. I reckon it was most likely built for a perfectly respectable local tradesman, though not long after, all the houses along this street became pubs, inns and brothels in service of the many seamen that lived here.

“It’s got a fantastic layout for playing around with, in terms of interior decoration: lots of little rooms all over the house. It means you can have a drawing room, a dining room, a music room – and then you can change it all around if you wish.”

Leo: “Or not…! I get used to spaces and enjoy them as they grow on me, and I within them. Pablo, meanwhile, treats the whole house as an installation, as an artwork of sorts. It’s like he’s bewitched by it. But you’ll notice he doesn’t have any of his own drawings in the house; the moment he finishes one, it’s out.”

Pablo: “I don’t like living with my work. I just see all its flaws. I think that’s why I’m always changing these rooms around and buying new things for them. It’s a bit of a compulsion – one I’m going to try to pour into my work when we leave here. That said, I do think collecting has been helpful. As an artist, I’m bombarded by professional anxieties the whole time. Focusing on something external to the art world can be relaxing and quite reassuring. Plus, it feeds my work in quite a simple way, as I draw so many of the objects we have in the house – the silver, the porcelain.”

Leo: “What that means is that, when we leave, the house will live on in your work, as it will in mine – not least the thousands of haikus I wrote during lockdown. I like that.”

Pablo: “The veil between our work and this house is quite thin, I think. I would describe the rooms here as incredibly energetic, lively, layered and dense with ideas. And that’s ultimately what our creative endeavours are all about.”

Further reading

Leo’s latest anthology, Ballad of a Happy Immigrant, is published by Penguin.

Pablo’s work can be seen in the permanent collection display at Tate Britain.

Shirley House, Deal, Kent

View sales listing
InigoInigo Logo

Like what you see?

From decorating tips and interior tricks to stories from today’s tastemakers, our newsletter is brimming with beautiful, useful things. Subscribe now.