This grand art gallery and museum stands in a premium spot atop the town’s East Cliff in a Grade II listed building in Art Nouveau style originally known as East Cliff Hall. It was built in 1897 as a commission by Merton Russell-Cotes, the owner of the neighbouring Royal Bath Hotel as a birthday present for his wife Annie and the first phase was completed in 1901.
Six years later Annie donated it and its contents to the town as a museum and Merton contributed his fine art collection and valuable keepsakes from his foreign travels. In return, the pair were made honorary freemen of the town. They continued adding to the collection and maintaining it until their deaths and in 1922 the Borough of Bournemouth assumed ownership, renaming it after the benefactors as the arts gallery and museum that is here today.
There are three main facets to your visit to the Russell Cotes; the house, the gallery and the gardens. Each an attraction in its own right, but together making for an original and unmissable day out in any season, whatever the weather.
The Russell Cotes Museum sits grandly on the East Overcliff looking over Bournemouth’s central beach and iconic pier. Its distinctive red turrets and quirky design give a glimpse to the Bournemouth of old, in keeping with the magnificent neighbouring hotels. Your tour begins at the main hall and stairs. This grand entrance has a sweeping and lavish Victorian staircase at its heart, with an ornamental pond in the centre of the ground floor and glass dome above the stairs showing a detailed depiction of creatures, comets and stars decorating the night sky.
The dining room is one of the main showrooms of the house, richly decorated in early English design, with many artefacts and design features celebrating the British Empire and Imperialism, such was the era in which it was built. The room opens out into a grand conservatory, where Merton and Annie could sit and enjoy the views across their magnificent grounds and Bournemouth beach beyond.
The Morning Room was Merton’s study; the central focus being an octagonal table previously owned by Napoleon Bonaparte. The room was originally filled with paintings and ceramics and part of the couple’s Japanese collection but it was to be devastated by war damage. The present-day ceiling design was installed in 1949 by artist Anna Zinkheisen who also designed the interior of the RMS Queen Mary luxury liner and an iconic Quality Street tin!
Russell Cotes’ Drawing Room housed the couple’s fine and decorative art collection – a delicate and intricate collection of pieces. The décor takes its inspiration from a torch and quiver design in its doors, which originate from an 18th Century Florentine palace and a number of pieces of furniture were once owned by royalty including Queen Victoria’s sofa and chairs.
The Green Room displays souvenirs from the couple’s travels to Russia and Scandinavia in 1898 but is thought to have been used as a guest room, most probably for their grandchildren when they came to stay. When Annie became ill in 1919 her nurse Miss Newboult moved into this room permanently. The Red Room opposite became Annie’s bedroom when she was ill so she could be closer to her nurse. She died here on 21 April 1920.
The Yellow Room was Annie’s bedroom before she became ill, but Merton move in here in the event of her ailing health. Sadly, there are no plans to show how the room would have been decorated or furnished but it’s used today to hold the personal effects of the Russell-Cotes family, as bequeathed by their granddaughter Phyllis Lee-Duncan in 1996. Outside the Yellow Room is a Moorish Alcove, created by the couple inspired by their visit to the Palace of Alhambra in Spain.
Before she became ill, Annie spent a lot of time in the Boudoir, her own private space for reading, sewing or enjoying the views with the welcome sanctuary of peace. Annie would receive her visitors in this grand room, which boasts sweeping bay windows for spectacular sea views.
The Mikado’s Room is devoted to Annie and Merton’s love of all things Japanese. It’s design is based on the grand Japanese drawing room in the neighbouring Royal Bath Hotel and overlooks the couple’s Japanese garden. The artefacts on display here were collected during the couple’s six week tour of the country in 1885, during which time they invested in one hundred packing cases of artefacts including lacquer, metalworks, ceramics, arms and armour.
Finally, the Irving Room, previously another bedroom and then a library, became a shrine to the Victorian tragic actor Sir Henry after his death in 1905. He was a regular visitor to Bournemouth, staying at the Royal Bath but a firm friend of the Russell-Cotes family. Many of the artefacts in this room were acquired from a 1905 Christie’s sale of ‘theatrical relics,’ while others were donated once word spread about this homage to Irving.
The Russell Cotes showcases its extensive art collection across four galleries.
Galleries 1 to 3 were built between 1916 and 1919, extending the building via the Main Hall. This extensive space houses many of Merton and Annie’s larger pieces of art and were gifted to the town in 1919. The galleries were opened to members of the public who had paid for tickets in advance, on the first Wednesday of each month. Gallery 4 was added in 1926 by the pair’s children to honour their parents’ wishes for another space for their artwork.
One of the most surprising things about the Russell Cotes is its lavish gardens just paces away from Bournemouth’s main stretch of golden beach. The presence of these gardens reminds you that this was once a private family home – albeit one of privilege. They were constructed as a private place of contemplation and retreat for the family in Merton’s vision for a tropical garden rising up from the town’s wild sand dunes. The space was once filled with marble and bronze sculptures and a summerhouse. Today, visitors can enjoy the stone grotto and fountain plus the intricate Japanese garden.
Special events and exhibitions
The Russell-Cotes has a rolling programme of guest exhibits, which enhance the main collection by celebrating a theme, an occasion, anniversary or season. Recent exhibits have included a Traditional Victorian Christmas, Meeting Modernism and Alice in Wonderland. For summer 2017, Russell-Cotes welcomes Refracted.
Refracted: Collection Highlights 13 May 2017 – 17 Sep 2017 (extended run)
Commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England, Russell-Cotes presents Refracted: Collection Highlights. The collection has been co-curated with members of Bournemouth’s LGBT+ community and funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to mark this significant change in social and cultural attitudes and celebrate work that reflects this event.
The exhibition takes its inspiration from the Rainbow Flag, used since the 1970s to symbolise the LGBT+ community with a bold colour scheme and themed paintings and exhibits reflecting the rainbow colours and their associated themes.
Sexuality is represented in pink, life (red), healing (orange), sunlight (yellow), nature (green), magic and art (turquoise), harmony (blue) and spirit (purple / violet). The Russell-Cotes’ extraordinary and diverse collection has been refracted through these themes in a stunning exhibit to appeal to all.
Some of the pieces represent or reflect LGBT+ experiences before decriminalisation. Notable works include The Annunciation, 1977 by Simeon Solomon (1840 – 1905) who was arrested and imprisoned for homosexual acts and John Minton’s (1917 – 1957) stunning life-size portrait Painter and Model. Minton was so conflicted by his homosexuality that he committed suicide.
Other works on display in Refracted include works of art and objects selected for their kitsch and exuberance, their relevance to the rainbow themes or for their personal appeal to the curators.