‘A house after my own heart’
Peter Booton takes a look behind the scenes at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth
Published in December ’13
The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum on Bournemouth’s East Cliff Promenade is one of the best provincial establishments of its kind in this country and is internationally renowned for the quality of its collections. These include High Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art, one of the most important Japanese collections in the world and a host of theatrical souvenirs as well as modern works of art. East Cliff Hall, in which the Art Gallery and Museum is housed, is an impressive building of historic and architectural interest dating from the last days of the Victorian era when it was built as a private residence for Merton (later Sir Merton) and Annie Russell-Cotes.
Merton and Annie moved to Bournemouth in 1876 and purchased the Bath Hotel, which they subsequently enlarged and re-named the Royal Bath Hotel, in honour of the Prince of Wales who had stayed there in 1856. Merton, a wealthy, self-made man, became a prominent resident of Bournemouth who worked tirelessly to promote the town’s reputation as a health resort – the very reason he had come to Bournemouth was in order to improve his own health – and was elected Mayor in 1894-95.
While living at the Royal Bath, Merton and Annie travelled widely, visiting Australia, America, Egypt, India, Japan, the Near East and the Pacific islands. They returned from each trip with numerous souvenirs and artworks that were put on display around the hotel. In 1897, when the Royal Bath was overflowing with the items they had collected, Merton commissioned a local architect, John Frederick Fogarty, to design a house alongside the hotel. The result was a sizeable seaside mansion combining ‘Renaissance with Italian and old Scottish baronial styles’, as Merton had specified. On 15 July 1901 he gave the completed East Cliff Hall to Annie for her 66th birthday. Merton later wrote, ‘For many years I had it in mind that some day I would build a house after my own heart, as an offering of “love and affection” to my wife.’
In 1908 Merton and Annie received the Freedom of the Borough and the following year Merton was knighted. After announcing that they were giving their home and huge collection of treasures to the people of Bournemouth, Sir Merton and Lady Russell-Cotes continued to live at East Cliff Hall until their deaths in 1920 and 1921 respectively. The following year Bournemouth Borough Council opened the property to the public as an art gallery and museum.
Old black and white photographs of East Cliff Hall show just how crowded its interior was, particularly the Hall, where large animal skins can be seen dangling from the balcony above suits of armour and numerous other items. Such overcrowding would not be permitted in a building open to the public today, but available space in the present galleries has been well thought out and around ten per cent of the Russell-Cotes core collection exhibits are now on display at any one time – an impressively large percentage compared to some national museums. Currently there are approximately 50,000 entries on the database which includes items that have been generously donated by relatives of Merton and Annie and various members of the public.
Merton was a connoisseur dealer and collector who acquired many highly prized items, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Venus Verticordia’, Napoleon’s dispatch bag and the axe which was reputedly used to behead Mary, Queen of Scots. Henry Irving, the first actor to be knighted in Britain, was a good friend of Merton and Annie and whenever he visited Bournemouth to perform at local theatres he always stayed at the Royal Bath Hotel. Merton persuaded his friend to part with many of his props and costumes and the Irving Room at the Russell-Cotes contains hundreds of objects relating to the actor’s career, such as advertising posters, newspaper cuttings and souvenir programmes. This unique collection also includes items from Bram Stoker, Lily Langtry, Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt.
Helen Ivaldi and Duncan Walker are in charge of the collections at the Russell-Cotes. Helen’s job title is Collections Officer Interpretation. She explains, ‘I’m responsible for objects on display and particularly exhibitions. I also do research and documentation.’ Temporary exhibitions in the main gallery are changed every six months, but smaller exhibitions, such as selling exhibitions in the Conservatory, are changed more frequently. These often feature local artists and craftspeople whose displayed work can be purchased by the public, profiting both the artist and the Russell-Cotes, which is a registered charity. ‘Art with a Heart’ is also proving to be a worthwhile venture as it allows anyone to buy copies of art at the Russell-Cotes from its online shop (www.russellcotesartshop.co.uk).
Duncan describes himself as an ‘object accountant’: ‘I’m responsible for “what have we got, where is it and who gave it?”’, and also information attached to each item. I also answer enquiries, deal with image reproductions and licensing rights, as well as doing loans in and out.’
With many thousands of items in store and with limited space in which to house them, potential additions need careful consideration. Duncan explains, ‘If somebody comes in with something, we have a meeting and give it full consideration. Often an item isn’t appropriate and so we try to move it on to a museum that can and will make use of it. If something outstanding came up, though, we’d apply for grant aid. There are avenues.’
Helen adds, ‘We’ve had a couple of things offered to us recently: a library book that we know belonged to Merton and a painting that he’d given as a gift to a relative. They had found their way into the hands of dealers who were keen for us to buy them, and they would have fitted perfectly into our collecting policy relating to Merton, but lack of funds meant that we had to pass them up. However, we’ve made a note of their existence, and that’s always useful.’
On Mondays, the only day of the week that the Art Gallery and Museum is closed to the public, a team of volunteers comes in to clean everything on display, including the room itself. It can take a month to clean one room from top to bottom using special brushes and tools. Another team of volunteers helps to maintain East Cliff Hall’s splendid garden, which is often admired by visitors. ‘We are very grateful for our volunteers,’ emphasises Duncan. ‘We certainly couldn’t do without them.’
When built, East Cliff Hall comprised three separate, linked areas: Merton and Annie’s private rooms – these enjoyed the best sea views – the servants’ quarters, and guest accommodation. The servants’ quarters and guests’ rooms are now used for storage and as offices for museum staff. Some sections of the original wallpapers have survived and are being protected. Where the interior had been re-painted over the years, the original colours were re-instated during a £2.5million refurbishment of the house funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2000. Although the former servants’ quarters and guest rooms are not accessible by the public during normal opening hours (10.00 to 5.00 Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays), these rooms, and certain others that are usually closed – such as the ‘Lily Langtry Loo’ – can be viewed during informative ‘Behind the Scenes’ tours conducted by Helen or Duncan on the tenth of every month at 11.00. The tours are restricted to a maximum of eight people and are not suitable for anyone with restricted mobility. Tickets can be booked in advance at the Museum, or on 01202 451820.