It’s the jewel in Bournemouth’s crown with a national and international reputation.
Founded by Sir Merton and Lady Annie Russell-Cotes at the turn of the twentieth century, the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum is a rare survivor as the residence of a Victorian private collector. Situated on the East Cliff, it stands as a testament to the Victorian passion for collecting and the enduring legacy of a remarkable couple.
The history of this institution is intertwined with the lives of Sir Merton Russell-Cotes and Lady Annie Russell-Cotes, whose vision and philanthropy gave rise to one of the country’s most eclectic and charming cultural establishments.
The story begins in the late 19th century when Sir Merton Russell-Cotes decided to build his wife Lady Annie, a dream house on a cliff, overlooking the sea. It was an extraordinary, extravagant birthday present – lavish, splendid, and with a touch of fantasy.
They filled this exotic seaside villa with beautiful objects from their travels across the world, and lined the walls with a remarkable collection of British art, creating a unique atmosphere in a most dramatic setting.
They began their collection, whilst owning the Royal Bath Hotel before building East Cliff Hall, a mansion overlooking the sea, completed in 1901. Designed in a lavish mix of Art Nouveau and Victorian styles, the house itself became a work of art, a fitting setting for the treasures it would house.
The historic house (now a Grade II* Listed Building) reflects Moorish, Japanese and French decorative styles alongside contemporary Victorian design, with each room telling its own story. Merton wrote: “I made up my mind to construct it architecturally to combine the Renaissance with Italian and old Scottish baronial style.”
The Russell-Cotes collection spans paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and artifacts from around the world. Sir Merton and Lady Annie were avid travellers, and their journeys influenced the global scope of their acquisitions.
From 1884, the couple travelled extensively visiting Australasia, America, India, the Near East, Egypt, the Pacific Islands and Japan, collecting artwork and souvenirs. The resulting collections were displayed throughout the hotel’s public and private rooms, which gained a reputation for being an art gallery and museum.
Many famous guests stayed at the hotel including Oscar Wilde, actor Sir Henry Irving, artist Sir Hubert Von Herkomer and Sir Benjamin Disraeli.
In 1907, the Russell-Cotes couple gifted their home and its contents to the town of Bournemouth, with the stipulation that it be used as a public art gallery and museum. This generous donation laid the foundation for the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, which officially opened its doors to the public in 1922, shortly after Sir Merton’s death in 1921.
The museum houses an impressive array of artworks, including pieces by renowned artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edwin Longsden Long RA, and Sir Alfred James Munnings alongside an inspiring collection of works by women artists.
The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum has not only served as a cultural hub but also as a venue for educational programmes, a changing calendar of temporary exhibitions and community projects.
The museum’s commitment to accessibility and inclusivity ensures that it continues to be a vibrant and relevant institution in the 21st century. It has become a popular tourist destination, attracting art enthusiasts, history buffs, and curious visitors from around the world.
The museum’s enduring charm lies not only in its remarkable architecture and diverse collections but also in the captivating story of the couple whose passion for art and culture left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of Bournemouth.
Image courtesy of Bournemouth Echo