Ever since the museum in 1922, the Russell-Cotes has continued to enthral the people of Bournemouth and visitors to the area with an eclectic display of late Victorian art and furnishings.
The historically important cliff-top museum is housed in a Grade II Listed Victorian house in the heart of one of the south’s foremost seaside resorts, and is home to an art collection with international renown.
The museum was built for Sir Merton and Lady Russell-Cotes, the local politician and his wife who was Mayor of Bournemouth from 1894 to 1895. The building and its contents were gifted to the people of the town shortly after it was built, with new art galleries being added.
One of the most fascinating historic houses in England, the Russell-Cotes property was the home of not one, but two Victorian collectors and travel enthusiasts, leading to an extensive collection of interesting artefacts and pieces.
The home was an extraordinarily extravagant birthday present from Merton to his wife – built with a lavish, splendid, and fantastical appeal that has endured ever since. The couple filled the exotic seaside villa with beautiful objects from their travels across the world and lined the walls with a remarkable collection of artworks, creating a pre-made museum for the people of the town, with a dramatic view over Poole Bay and the English Channel.
In 1897, the architect John Frederick Fogerty was commissioned by Russell-Cotes, to build a house as a birthday present for his wife Annie. Russell-Cotes was then owner of the Royal Bath Hotel, arguably the town’s finest hotel, and just a short walk down the hill from the new home, he wanted to create something amazing for the love of his life. Originally known as East Cliff Hall, it was built in the northeast section of his hotel’s garden.
In 1901, Merton gave his wife Annie the dream house on a cliff-top, overlooking the sea. It was an extraordinary birthday present, being built in the Art Nouveau style with interiors by John Thomas and his son Oliver.
Being donated to the town just a few years after it was built, the Russell-Cotes is a rare survivor as the residence of a Victorian private collector, purpose-designed to be a permanent living art museum. The collection of mainly nineteenth and early twentieth-century paintings can be viewed within their original context of sumptuous period interiors.
The extensive collection contains a number of examples of European and Japanese artworks, with a wide variety of its pieces being regularly loaned to other galleries around the world.
The museum’s main hall contains a remarkable collection of high Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art, including many works by women artists, a fact of historical significance considering men’s dominance of the art world at the time. Other souvenirs from the couple’s travels around the world are located throughout the home, with works from Russia, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. With stunning views, a serene cliff-top garden and stylish café, Merton’s extravagant gift to his wife is now one of Bournemouth’s best-loved visitor attractions.
The early curators of the Museum were strong supporters of the Tempera revival movement of the 1920s, and as result the museum is a key collector of these works. Russell-Cotes is also a living museum, and so continues to display artwork by locally relevant contemporary artists as well as the extensive volume of older material.
There is a regular programme of exhibitions featuring both art and artefacts and the museum also hosts a range of talks, tours and events throughout the year.