Bournemouth, Dorset: The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum

The Russell-Cotes House is exactly the kind of house I’d like to live in…if it wasn’t a museum, and also wasn’t in Bournemouth (not knocking the town, because it’s the first time I’ve ever been there and I didn’t really go anywhere except Russell-Cotes House, but it looked kind of seedy as we were driving through, like most English seaside towns. The beach did look quite nice though, if it hadn’t been freezing cold. In May).

  

It is a gloriously quirky Victorian mansion (completed in 1901, shortly before Queen Victoria died, it is also technically one of the last Victorian mansions ever built, as the museum kept reminding us) perched on a side of a hill overlooking the sea. Apparently it is built in an “Art Nouveau” style, but the turrets, bold colours, and big wrap-around front porch reminded me of Victorian houses in America, rather than the more boring sedate brick Victorian buildings that are much more common in England (like the one I live in, which has been divided into flats and stripped of any character it might have had, save for the fireplace and high ceilings), which is why I probably loved it so much.

  

Admission to this fabulous building (its official name is East Cliff Hall) is £6 (or £5.45 if you decline the Gift Aid), and the self-guided tour starts with a short film about the history of the house. Built by Merton Russell-Cotes for his wife Annie, it was their dream home and a place for them to display the many, many objects they had collected on their travels through the years. They seem to have been a rather sweet and devoted couple, what with travelling the world together, and dying within a year of each other (don’t worry, they were able to enjoy their house for about twenty years first). They were also clearly extraordinarily wealthy and well-connected, though where their money came from is a mystery, at least to me, because it wasn’t discussed anywhere in the museum (I suspect there’s a dark secret somewhere in their past, albeit with absolutely no evidence to support this theory).

  

The house is meant to be set up pretty much as Merton and Annie would have had it (except for a few of the more museum-y rooms), and you’re free to wander through and pretend you’re visiting them, I guess. So nothing is really roped off (though obviously you’re expected to not touch things) and there aren’t signs on anything, just a a large informational guide on a stand in each room (we came right after they opened, so there were only a handful of visitors, but I suspect this gets annoying at busier times, because those books were seriously like twenty pages each, and based on my experiences in way too many National Trust properties, I can imagine that some people stand there for ages reading every page). We got a taste of their enviable lifestyle right off the bat, when we walked into the dining room and were greeted with an octagonal table and a wine cooler (above right) once owned by Napoleon that they managed to snap up whilst they were visiting St. Helena (as you do…oh wait, you haven’t been to one of the most isolated islands in the world?! Me either). I also immediately learned that Merton really liked birds (as do I, admittedly. Well, some birds. Not those white ibis in Australia. Or emus or cassowaries (also in Australia)), and had chosen to decorate the room with a splendid peacock border.

  

There was a collection of busts in the conservatory, my favourite being good ol’ Wellington (looking rather dashing), though his rival (archnemesis?) Napoleon was there too.  However, the conservatory was locked, so we just had to peer out at them from the dining room.

 

Napoleon’s table wasn’t the only famous person’s furniture that the Russell-Cotes’s owned. They also had a sofa and chairs that were Queen Victoria’s (I don’t think she ever visited this home, since she died shortly after it was completed, but I believe she did visit them in a previous residence, and her daughter, Princess Beatrice, took tea here with Annie), and a cabinet belonging to Empress Eugenie of France, who they knew personally. Actually, the story behind the cabinet is that Eugenie didn’t realise it had been sold, and got a nasty shock when she went to East Cliff Hall for a visit and saw it in pride of place in the drawing room.  The dress in the picture above is a re-creation of Annie’s wedding dress, based off of a photograph taken on her wedding day.

  

The main hall of the house was similarly extravagant, and contained even more busts, paintings by Rossetti et al, and a fountain inspired by the Moorish room at Leighton House (which was one of the only parts of Leighton House that I didn’t complain about).  The ornamentation even carried on into the public restrooms…I strongly recommend that you use the ones in the actual house rather than the ones in the gift shop or cafe, because they are worth seeing, in particular the ladies’ loo (I peeped into the men’s and it was nice, but not as elaborate as the women’s toilet).

  

There was an extension added on to the house for art galleries (done whilst the Russell-Cotes’s were still alive, as they had always planned to donate the building to Bournemouth after they died (they had children, by the way, they probably just reckoned they didn’t need the house), and had some of the house open to the public once a month whilst they were still living in it), though unfortunately only a couple of the galleries were open, because they were in the process of putting together a new exhibit.

  

Merton and Annie definitely seemed to be partial to statues and busts (though apparently Merton collected most of the art; Annie was more into natural history), and my favourite piece here was a bust of George Bernard Shaw (above right) done, oddly enough, by Kathleen Scott, widow of Robert Falcon Scott of polar fame (bust on the left is Nelson, no idea who the sculptor was).

  

Now, I want to talk about the stained glass on the cupola over the main hall, because that is what convinced me that I needed to visit the house in the first place. As you can hopefully tell from the picture above (click to enlarge), it has bats and owls on it, flying through a night sky. If I could only have one element from this house in my imaginary dream home, this is what I’m taking, no doubt about it.

 

Though the upstairs rooms admittedly weren’t as grand as the ones downstairs, they were nonetheless my favourite section of the house, because they were more straightforward museum rooms, with actual labels, and I got to learn more about Merton and Annie’s travels and the things they collected. One room had objects ranging from a decorative band that was on the outside of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake (Merton and Annie were both born in 1835, so I imagine they were too young to have actually attended her wedding), to an instrument made from a crocodile’s head, and, in keeping with the crocodile theme, some child-sized ankle bracelets found in the stomach of a crocodile in India, meaning some unlucky little girl got eaten.

  

There was also a “Mikado Room” built to house Merton’s Asian artefacts, and another room with souvenirs from their trip to Russia and Scandinavia, including a child’s sled embellished with some scary toothed geese. The signage in here included extracts from Annie’s diary entries during the Russia trip, which were pretty interesting. They visited about twenty years before the Revolution, but apparently could already see signs of unrest.

  

Lest you think that the things poor Annie collected had been left out, never fear! There was also a whole room full of natural history stuff, like a case full of stuffed kiwis that she acquired in New Zealand (obviously). The bedroom she was forced to move to shortly before she died was also up here; she had to move because it was near the only room that could accommodate her nurse (I guess because all the other rooms were too nice?).

  

My favourite decorative border in the house was in what I’m going to call the “Crow Room” (unless those are blackbirds? I like birds, but I’m not great at identifying them). I especially love the golden moon that’s been added in. (Many of the rooms also had beautiful gold stars painted up near the ceiling. This was really my kind of house.)

  

The strangest room had to be the Henry Irving Room, which was like a bizarre shrine to the actor Henry Irving. Apparently he was a good friend of Merton and Annie, and they loved his acting, so were devastated when he died, and set a whole room aside for Irving artefacts. I know Irving was a famous actor, but I don’t really know all that much about him, so I couldn’t fully appreciate the Irvingness of this room, though I did admire the weirdness.

  

More stained glass of note (because those damn Victorians really excelled at stained glass); the piece over the centre of the upstairs hallway. It’s a little hard to see, but the corners of each larger square are the signs of the zodiac. I was particularly partial to Taurus, who you might just be able to spot (and I’ve just noticed that Aquarius looks rather like the Mannequin Pis).

  

There were so many more fabulous details in the house that I’d love to show you, but we’d be here all day, so let me move on to the gardens. Apparently, the gardens once stretched for quite a ways around the house, but they’ve all been swallowed up by real estate, so all that’s left now is the grotto area, and a small Japanese garden. Unusually, the Russell-Cotes’s didn’t have any live-in servants, instead relying on staff from the hotel next door to keep their house running, so there was a secret gate in the garden that they could cut through on their way over. (Merton and Annie did own the hotel too at one point, though I’m not sure if it was while they were living in East Cliff House. I do hope that the staff were properly compensated for their work, and not just expected to do two jobs for the same pay, but knowing Victorians, my hopes aren’t high.)

  

I certainly enjoyed pretty much every aspect of this house’s appearance, inside and out, though I’m still not sure how I feel about Merton and Annie – they were definitely a fascinating couple who had amazing experiences, but I feel like them using the hotel’s staff is probably a bit shady, and I’m still bothered that I don’t know the source of their wealth. But, they are long-dead, and the house as it stands today is magnificent, and worth the relatively modest price of admission (I mean, can you imagine what the National Trust or English Heritage would charge to see something like this? Probably at least 15 quid, if not more!).  I do love labels, so I would have liked to see some in the actual house, but I can understand that it would detract from the experience they’re going for. Perhaps if they put a couple smaller guides in each room in place of the big books, it would be better, because some of the books contained stuff like a list of restoration expenses, or a lengthy history of some of the artistic styles represented in the paintings, and it was way more than I cared to read and came at the expense of information about some of the smaller, but more intriguing looking objects. Because of that, I’ll give it 4/5, but it is a most excellent looking house, and I think Merton would be happy to see all the birds that still frequent the garden.

  

 

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8 comments

  1. Holy smokes, I love this house! It’s like one big treasure chest – the kind of grand, Gothic-y place I’d have wanted to explore as a kid. I can see what you mean about it being more of an American-style Victorian – it’s so exuberant. Also, it’s remarkable how cozy it looks for such a large structure. I’d live there for that dining room with the nook alone.
    Whatever those two were up to, I like their style – especially the dark, vaguely spooky accents, like the swallows, and your bats and crows. And the detailing on the walls of the Henry Irving room is lovely. (Your line about the Irvingness and weirdness made me laugh.) I’m not familiar with him at all, but I rather like the look of his face so I’ll have to read up on him.
    If I were ever to visit, I think I’d be tempted to hide in a closet until closing time and then change all the locks.

    1. I like their style too, it just bothers me that I know virtually nothing about them. Obviously they were rich and liked to travel, but I know almost nothing about them as people, other than the tantalizing glimpse provided by their excellent choice of decor. It’s kind of like upscale goth (certainly classier than my Halloween decorations that never come down), and I want them to have been like Gomez and Morticia, but judging by photos, I think they were just average Victorian collector-types, maybe with better taste than most. And yes to the nook too! I love a nook!
      I like your plan. The cafe had a big pile of millionaire’s shortbread, so I think I could happily subsist off of that for a while whilst waiting for closing time and/or going all Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler style and sleeping in a hidey-hole during the day, and emerging at night to revel in the empty house.

      1. I love that you have Halloween decorations that never come down too. I’ve got a metal monster, sculpture-y thing that looks a bit like the mayor from Nightmare Before Christmas and bounces on springs (jeez, this is harder to describe than I’d thought when I started writing this). Anyhow, he sits in front of the fireplace all year round and is awful cute.
        I’m embarrassed to say, I’d never heard of the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler before this. Good grief – how’d I miss it? I’ll have to pick up a copy – it sounds like perfect summer- streetcar reading.

      2. He sounds cute! I’ve got Halloween stuff everywhere, right down to bloody hand prints on the shower door. I think various repair people talk about how weird I am amongst themselves…the same guy comes to check our boiler every year, and the one year his son came and was like, “Oh yeah, I was warned about your skeleton” (he’s not a real skeleton, but his name is Vincent and he gets seasonal outfit changes).
        The Mixed-Up Files was one of those books that I thought I remembered reading as a child, but when I finally got around to reading it as an adult, I realised that I hadn’t, which is a shame because it’s very good. I had however read Everything and More by Geoff Nicholson, which is a similar sort of idea, but with a department store, and is definitely not a children’s book.

      3. Vincent sounds like lots of fun – and bloody prints in the bathroom is pretty genius 🙂
        I’ll keep an eye out for Everything and More too – though it sounds like it actually might spook me. (I’m a fairly big baby.)

  2. Wow, this is fabulous – and you’re right, very American. I was bemused when I first came across “Victorian” houses there, as they were nothing like what I was used to – and why not have their own name for a period instead of using a monarchy long ago rebelled against? Though having stayed in a few Victorian b&bs since, I’ve now overlooked that. Totally with you on the stained glass too, I look be the dome.

    1. I guess there isn’t really a good name other than “Victorian” in America because none of the labels we do use for the 19th century can be applied to the whole of the years that make up the Victorian era, or the whole of the country, for that matter, like antebellum, Reconstruction, Gilded Age, etc. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t huge changes over the course of the century in Britain too, but at least ol’ Victoria was the constant. At any rate, I do vastly prefer American Victorian architecture, so this was a delight!

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