Finding the location of Paul Gauguin's house in Tahiti

Finding the location of Paul Gauguin's house in Tahiti

June 29, 2022

The truth is my book Utterly Immoral, which is published in November 2022, is the product of many years of research into the life of Robert Keable. Back in 2016 I visited Tahiti to find out as much as I could. One priority for me on that visit was to find the exact location of the French Impressionist Paul Gauguin’s house which Robert and Jolie Keable lived in for almost a year in 1923. I wrote about my search in a diary at the time.


Robert Keable loved driving along the coast road south of Papeete.

It is a lovely road and full of memories. We run along the edge of Papeete bay and look back at the clustering houses, the wharves, the schooners and the ship-yards, all nestling at the foot of the hills…… we mount a little rise quickly enough and swing round a corner that blots Papeete out. I am never sorry. Pause a little and look at the new view, earnest of how much more will come!

You aren’t looking back on wharves and shipyards anymore, but you can see the mariana half full of expensive yachts and today there is a giant cruise liner appropriately named the Paul Gauguin moored in the harbour. Today for me is all about trying to find where Paul Gauguin lived back at the turn of the last century, and at the same time where Robert and Jolie Keable’s first rented home was, because they ‘accidentally’ rented the same house for the first nine months of 1923.

I have got quite a lot to go on thanks to a letter Robert Keable sent to Michael Sadler his publisher:

It will amuse you to hear that I seem to have fallen on my feet. I have got a house 12 ½ kilometres out of Papeete which was once Gauguin’s and which is just touched on in O’Brien’s MYSTIC ISLES OF THE SOUTH SEAS, page 327. It stands back from the road and is exceedingly pretty and exciting. There is a property of two or three acres of coconuts, with a private reef admirable for fishing and canoeing and bathing, a stream, and the most wonderful view you ever saw. It is absolutely isolated in one sense—far enough out and sufficiently secluded; but the main road runs past the house, ice will be delivered daily, water is laid on, bathroom etc., telephone handy. The garden has immense possibilities and there is actually a lawn of sorts shaded by mangoes and breadfruit.

In an article published in the Century Magazine in 1923 Robert wrote:

Thus I had virtually taken the place when I was informed casually by the owner, for the usual reason, that it had been the great painter’s home. My landlord bought the land from Gauguin when he left, in 1901, for the Marquesas, and he himself burned a cart-load of carvings and God knows what else. The main portion of the little house is as the master left it, and I write with my eyes upon those colours of land and sky and sea that were his inspiration.

Of course, that was all back in 1923 and the only other reference I could find later was by a HG Metcalf who wrote a book in the 1960s called That Summer in Tahiti. His information was:

I knew the place where Gauguin’s house had been in Punaauia. The house was no longer there, but in 1957 there was a small local schoolhouse on the site. This school has a sign on it which read, “Ecole Punaauia, 2+2=4.” By 1962 the school had disappeared, but the sign was still there, and a notice that this was the site of Gauguin’s house, a native-style fare.

Apart from that and three of pictures of the beach – one from Robert Keable’s book Tahiti Isles of Dreams helpfully entitled ‘The view from Gauguin’s house’,  a second of Robert and Jolie on the beach and the third of a standing canoeist fishing within the reef – I was on my own.

Finding 12 ½ km out of Papeete should have been relatively easy since in theory there are white stones with painted red tops every kilometre pointing out how many kms you are from Papeete, and on the other side how many from Taravao (where the two parts of the island meet – the larger Tahiti Nui and the smaller Tahiti Iti). I said ‘in theory’ because although I saw plenty of the km signs later in the day I never saw any in the first 15 kilometres – partly perhaps because I followed the new fast highway out of town.

At least I knew I was going the right way because every now and then I could see the grayscale outline of Moorea the nearest island to Tahiti. Again, best described by Robert Keable 90 years ago:

At sea, shimmering in the heat of the sun lies Moorea, the Moorea which one wise man of my acquaintance refused ever to visit, for he said that to tread her veritable shore would be to dispel the magic of a dream…. The proper function of Moorea is doubtless that of providing a lovely view for Tahiti, and all along this western coast we shall glimpse her again and again, fantastic and mirage-like in the sunlight, unearthly in the radiance of the moon, dark, aloof and a mystery as the sun dies behind her.

 Certainly, the view of Moorea has not changed but what undoubtedly has is the coastline round Punaauia. Robert Keable’s description:

The great hills descend to the sea in green undulating folds broken by deep valleys through which little streams have torn away. For the depth of about a mile there is a belt of lower land consisting mainly of coconut plantations intermixed with every other description of tropical tree and shrub. Where the cleared plantations cease the bush begins so thick and thorny as to be almost impenetrable.

Well, the great hills do still descend - although dotted and at times splodged with buildings – but the belt of lower land is free of nearly all coconuts, tropical trees, shrubs and thick bush. In its place all along the shore side of the road are homes (many benefitting from corrugation) and on the other side cleared land with more building (though less densely arranged) including shops, petrol stations, churches and the like.

Robert concluded this passage from Tahiti Isles of Dreams with:

In the very centre of this sweep of coast, at little point that here juts out towards the reef, bounded by a brook and looking to the south end of Moorea, dwelt Paul Gauguin from 1895 to 1901.

All fine and dandy but as I drive along, I cannot see any sweep of coast because every house has a high fence. I could be fifty miles from the sea for all I know. At about 12 ½ kilometres – I may have lost count as the counter in the car refused to return to zero – I parked beside the road and went looking for a path down to the sea. I caught the occasional glimpse of the ocean down someone’s garden path but every house had a suitably high fence to keep me out. I went into shop and ascertained (the Chinese lady admitted to more English than I have French) that one can’t reach the beach in these parts.

I pondered whether to start knocking on doors but realised I didn’t actually know how close I was to the important 12 ½ kilometre mark. Still as I walked I saw up ahead a yard sale clearly in the early stages of construction but already open for business. I peered at a few items of tat and was drawn to a large framed picture of the quayside at Papeete perhaps fifty years ago. I asked how much and discovering it was well out of my price range I launched into my piece about trying to find Gauguin’s house. Only one of the five ladies present (all ladies but I later discovered the France Portugal Euro cup final was on live at the time so the men were otherwise occupied) spoke any English, but she translated for a middle aged lady who knew Gauguin lived where the 2 + 2  = 4 school was. Does the school still exist I asked. Indeed it does, she must have replied, and offered to drive me there.

So I climbed into the car of the French speaking lady and off we drove. She chatted away and I nodded blandly. At one point she asked whether I spoke French? I replied Non, and mumbled a frenchish apology. Undaunted she carried on speaking French at me. After a while we were lost. She stopped the car and tried ringing people. From what I could gather they all seemed to be telling her to get off the phone as the football was on. Her story was getting more and more exciting. By the third call she had the “fils de Gauguin” in the car with her. Suddenly I saw a sign by the road announcing 2 + 2 = 4. I pointed it out and we turned into a small parking area outside a primary school and not any primary school it was the rather grand looking, and clearly back in business, 2 + 2 = 4 Ecole.

Unfortunately, the school was closed and surrounded by a massive fence and an American who my lady tried phoning – not sure if he taught at the school or knew something about it – was not at home.

So I had found the school but still not the beach. The lady drove me back to the yard sale and I drove back to the school alone. Just as I parked a large car drew in to the driveway and a man got out to open the school gate. I walked over and a young lady somehow understood I wanted to take a picture of the beach and said I could walk down the side of the fence. As I set off she called after me, “Dog.” “Is he OK?” I asked and she put her thumb up.

I walked down towards a roped off path and in front of me lying in the shade of a high coconut tree was a huge mongrel. As I approached he raised his head, then, seeing me, he lowered it and closed his eyes.  I walked past, clambered over the rope and walked down to the black sanded beach. The beach was covered with broken white coral, and as all black sanded beaches do, looked dirty, but I can honestly say it was the most wonderful beach I have ever seen. The beach front was a long curved bay. There was no segmentation despite all the houses clearly believing they had a private beach.

I looked at the photo of ‘The View from Gauguin’s House’. Certainly Moorea was the same shape. In the picture was a stream and a tree. There were no trees on the beach but running down the far side of the school was a trickle of water easily jumpable and with no depth but one could imagine in the rainy season it could become a torrent. I had found the spot!

I now understand what Robert Keable meant be a private reef. Out to sea there were high rollers perhaps 10-foot-high crashing round a large semi-circle. An unseen ringed reef was protecting the lagoon which was still as a pond. I took loads of photos a few from the spot where Robert and Jolie were standing in their photo. (Which is the image used for the front cover of Utterly Immoral). And a few from the view from Gauguin’s house. I took photos of photos in front of their view which each look pretty stupid. And just as I was making to leave a stand up canoeist came into sight, paddling fast within the reef and I managed a long shot photo.

Exhilarated I loaded the photos from my camera onto the laptop and drove back to the yard sale to show them to the French lady. She made all the right noises but seemed surprised when I showed her the photo of Robert and Jolie Keable. Did I have a photo of Gauguin?