Victoriana

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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London: 18 Stafford Terrace (Linley Sambourne House)

img_20161002_152655388_hdr_stitchI know I’ve mentioned before how I am, to some extent, always fishing for an excuse to go out to Kensington.  The lure of the giant Whole Foods there (mainly because they sell delicious chocolate chip muffins) + Ben’s Cookies simply proves irresistible.  Well, I found another excuse to gorge myself on bakery experience a fine cultural attraction in the form of 18 Stafford Terrace, otherwise known as the family home of the Sambournes.

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If you’ve never heard of the Sambournes, don’t feel bad; I hadn’t really either until I went to this house.  Linley Sambourne, patriarch of the Sambourne clan, was a cartoonist for Punch, a keen collector of Victoriana (which I suppose wasn’t really Victoriana at the time, just normal furnishings), and an avid photographer (which strayed into a “private” interest in photography, if you get my drift).  He and his wife Marion purchased this terraced house in 1875, when it was only a few years old, and lived there until they died, collecting crap all the while.  Their son and daughter did nothing to change it, as they had their own London residences, and eventually their granddaughter inherited it and was so inspired by its contents that she became one of the founders of the Victorian Society, and she transferred the lease of the house to them (it is currently owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington, who took over the lease in 2000), which is why it is now open to the public as a bit of a Victorian time capsule.

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The house offers both guided tours, which much be pre-booked, and self-guided tours, which you can just show up and do.  They were also offering a temporary 2-for-1 offer on self-guided tours at the time of our visit, which is what sold me on it at last! (Normally, admission is 7 pounds each, so I was quite pleased with 3.50.  They somewhat disingenuously don’t mention the offer in person (it’s advertised on their website, and ends on the 30th of October), and I had to specifically ask for the 2-for-1 deal to get it; the admissions lady tried to charge us full price until I said something!)  The “tour” began with a video, which explained how the house came to be a sort of museum, and told us the history of the Sambourne family.  Linley sounded like a real character, which is reflected to some extent in the house.

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Because although the house is a beautiful example of Victorian architecture and decor, the highlight by far is Linley’s photographic collection, which completely filled the walls of some of the rooms, in true Victorian style.  He first got into photography when he realised that he could make models pose in the positions he wanted, snap their photo, and then use the resulting image as a guide to draw his cartoons, without all the hassle of having a live model in the studio.  He also seemed to be a pioneer in the art of the selfie, as most of the pictures were of himself in various hilarious poses!

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And of course, there was his slightly more prurient interest in risque (for the time) photography.  As you can see, I was clearly delighted to spot the collection of sexy photos, which featured curvaceous nude women in various “artistic” poses, and was conveniently placed above the marble bathtub that he filled with developing solution for his own photographs.

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My other favourite thing in the house was probably Linley’s “fern case,” set inside a sunny projecting window at the front of the house, where he kept ferns (naturally) and a sort of glass terrarium full of rocks (if it were mine, I would fill it with some sort of unusual taxidermy, but it was still pretty perfect as is.  I think I’d probably grow strawberries in there too, with all the sun.  Wouldn’t that be appetising?  Strawberries and dead animals).

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The house was also liberally filled with Linley’s cartoons and illustrations, many of which were actually pretty damn funny.  There was a little laminated guide in each room (usually just a paragraph or two), but they didn’t go into a lot of detail about the illustrations, so I had to pause and lean real close to the cartoons to see what was going on (many of them were hung along the staircases, so you had to wait until no one was coming down.  And the house had a tonne of staircases, as it was very tall and narrow.  About five floors, but only a couple rooms per floor).

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I’ve reached the point where I don’t have a lot more to say, but there’s still loads of photos, so here you go (the kind of crappy looking room towards the bottom is the maid’s room, in case you were wondering why it’s so spartan compared to the others):

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Suffice it to say the house is amazing, especially if you appreciate Victoriana as much as I do (I could definitely live there!), but I’m still glad we only paid half price, as I don’t think it was 7 quid’s worth of stuff to see.  Linley Sambourne seemed like a pretty neat guy (and according to the video, he was very proud of his daughter’s artistic abilities, which is nice to see from a Victorian father), and his photography was definitely entertaining, but I feel like the house caters more for guided tours, so there wasn’t really enough information available on self-guided ones (though some of the volunteers were very helpful…others not so much), and the normal price is a little high for what you get.  Even still, it’s probably a must-see for lovers of all things Victorian.  3.5/5.

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London: Pollock’s Toy Museum

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All right, assuming the publishing feature worked correctly, you may be reading this on my birthday, while I’m off in Denmark, hopefully having a fabulous time and finding some new places to blog about (I’m thinking the Medical Museum and the Police Museum look promising)!   But for now, here’s a post on a museum in London with a lovely antiquated feel: Pollock’s Toy Museum (as usual, please excuse the crappy pictures.  ‘Twas very dark, and you can see my reflection in most of the glass cases).
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Given how often I head to Goodge Street for an extremely cheap and studenty yet strangely delicious pizza from ICCO, it’s odd that Pollock’s Toy Museum has escaped my attention until now.  Oh sure, I knew it existed, but I think I’ve sometimes confused it with the Museum of Childhood, which I think is more child-centric.  It wasn’t until I saw Professor Hutton visit it on Professor Hutton’s Curiosities (which was disappointingly London-centric (and this is coming from someone who lives in London), and I’m sorry, but Professor Hutton kind of freaks me out.  Something about his long, unkempt witch-like hair – he looks like the type of man who would have long, yellow, dirty nails) that I realised both where it was, and that it looked a bit creepy, and therefore awesome.
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Scala Street is sandwiched roughly between Charlotte Street and Tottenham Court Road, quite near to Goodge Street Station.  The museum space spans two narrow buildings; one Victorian, the other Georgian, which already made it cool in my book.  Walking into the gift shop/admissions, I found myself in a room that had the aura of an old-fashioned magic shop – full of shelves crammed with overhanging toys/ephemera and curio cabinets bulging with miniatures, which were lent atmosphere by the dimly lit interior.  The place was completely deserted, and I was kind of afraid someone would emerge from a back room and offer to sell me a gremlin/evil Krusty doll/frogurt with toppings containing potassium benzoate, but after waiting around for a couple minutes, and nervously calling, “Hello?” a man casually strolled through the front door with the glass of coke he’d been getting from the pub next door.  At last, I was able to pay my £6 admission fee, and enter through the heavy door.

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I was greeted by a winding staircase, and a case full of American toys, including a bank shaped like Boss Tweed.  You should know that the staircases are quite narrow and steep, and they all have toys exhibited along them, so you’ll often find yourself twisting into awkward positions to get a good look at things, whilst trying to not fall down the stairs.  This was further complicated by the fact that I was holding a large shopping bag in addition to my purse, and trying to take pictures with my crappy phone, which requires two hands; honestly I was probably lucky I didn’t break a leg or something.  I would imagine this would be a nightmare if the place was crowded; fortunately, I was the only visitor at the time.

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After successfully getting a peek at the board games on the stairs of death (I did a year-long research project on board games when I was in third grade, and I still love playing them, on the rare occasions I can find enough people to play with), I emerged onto the first floor, which was devoted to boys’ toys (that just sounds stupid and/or pervy, sorry), although some of them were unisex, like the rocking horses and zoetropes (When I was little, my grandpa bought me a rocking horse that I named Buckles, and spent hours riding whilst singing “Home, Home, on the Range” over and over again.  I must have driven my grandparents mad).  I was actually quite tomboyish when I was a kid, and I loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but my mother would never buy me any of the action figures because they were for boys, apparently.  I had to resort to hand-me-downs from one of my friends, which mainly consisted of the crappier characters (I probably had five Raphaels).  This stuff was far more “vintage”though; I think the newest things there were some robot and space toys from the ’60s, and a few GI Joes.
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On the second floor, I checked out the collection of toy theatres, and then progressed into the Georgian part of the museum, which was unashamedly girly.  There were some rather creepy wax dolls (particularly so if you’ve seen that episode of Doctor Who where Amy and Rory are trapped in that dollhouse with the faceless peg dolls), and I was the only person in there, completely surrounded by their dead staring eyes, in a room with creaky 18th century floorboards and the distant tortured cry of a pigeon from the ledge outside.  Before fleeing (I’m being melodramatic here, I wasn’t really that freaked out), I did note the English doll who was owned by an American pioneer girl, but eventually made it back to England to rest in the museum.
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The next room was full of dollhouses, which I definitely  have a fondness for.  I played with Barbies and stuff when I was little, and I had some American Girls dolls (Samantha and Felicity), but I never had a dollhouse, which is a shame, because I loved making up stories for them, and I also love miniature things.  These examples weren’t quite as ornate as some I’ve seen, but I still would have loved to own them when I was a kid, and I spent some time poring over the decorations and wee furniture.  Around the corner were some teddies arranged in trees, and naturally, in a teddy bear picnic tableux, though my favourite was a poor WWI soldier bear who had been injured, and was resting his bandaged leg.  Just thinking about it makes me go “awwwww” inside my head. (See, I do have a soft side!)
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The next room though, well, that was another doll room, mainly of the china sort.  I was never into baby dolls; I guess I’ve never had any kind of maternal instinct, so these didn’t do much for me, though the homemade Pearly King and Queen dolls were kind of cool.  The collections finished on the staircase back down with some war related games, and foreign toys.
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Even though this is a toy museum, I don’t think children would actually like it, as you can’t touch anything.  There were two young boys behind me as I left, as they had rushed through the entire museum in the time it took me to look at one room, and they seemed pretty uninterested.  However, nostalgic adults would love it, as you can probably tell from the way I’ve bored you with personal reminiscences throughout.  I mean, I was born well after any of the eras most of these toys were from, but I still found them delightful.  Dusty cases full of Victorian toys arranged in strange tableaux in a dark, quiet museum of warren-like rooms is EXACTLY the kind of thing I love.  That said, I do think £6 is kind of steep, but it is in central London, and doesn’t seem to be terribly popular, so I’m sure they need the help paying the rent.  If you like Victoriana and/or old-fashioned museums, then I think it’s definitely worth checking out. 4/5.
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