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The Present Past: Russell-Cotes Museum

A photograph of the main building of the Russell-Cotes Museum; a fountain is in the foreground and the house rises behind it

This is an image-heavy post. The photograph of Merton Russell-Cotes from 1909 is held by the Lafayette Archive of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Russell-Cotes Museum is a historic semi-hidden, purposefully-constructed house, on the edge of the coast of Bournemouth. If you didn’t know about it already and decided to go to the beach, to walk along the sand or promenade down the pier, you would most likely miss it; at most you might spot a couple of none-too-tall spires in the distance. This is because the house is situated on a cliff that is accessed by a pathway that climbs the hill from the opposite end of the car park to the beach access route. There’s also not much to see from the pathway unless you continue up the hill away from the house – in fact, when I saw the sandwich board outside the single-width gap in the stone wall, I reversed my steps to make sure the Museum wasn’t actually the big building with a pavilion and lawn next door. (That building is the Royal Bath Hotel which seems to have taken use of the Museum’s pavilion; the original owners of the Museum building had bought the Hotel.)

A photograph of the garden from the perspective of the building - we look down towards the sea

As you might expect, once through the gap, the front garden (there isn’t a back garden) is fairly small in relative terms and at least in autumn more focused on greenery than flowers (there could be flowers but the amount of evergreen suggested not too many). It’s the kind of garden you might expect of a house where the interior is everything. You’d be right.

A photograph of Merton Russell-Cotes

The main building, the rather Gothic house in the photograph above, is joined on the left to a new building that holds the ticket office, shop, and cafe, and on the right an extension that was built by the original owners (the builders of the house). In building the cafe/shop building, the group that run the house made a decision that works incredibly well: unlike many historic houses, where there are many more rooms than you, as a member of the public, can access, due to cafe conversions and storage spaces, the majority of the Museum is publicly accessible. There are a few smaller rooms for the staff and workings, but what you see in the photograph above you will for the most part view from the inside outwards, too. (I will from now on be referring to the people who run the Museum as ‘Bournemouth’, as it is officially the Borough of Bournemouth who do so.)

This is where we get to the history. The Museum, previously called East Cliff Hall, was conceived by Merton Russell-Cotes as a gift for his wife, Annie, and completed in 1901 (the extension was finished in 1919). Its conception was for the general purpose you see today: the couple were avid travellers and wanted a house that could exhibit all the items they brought back from around the world. Essentially, for all they lived in it, the building was a museum first, house second. In 1907, before the extension was built, the couple donated the house as a museum to the town of Bournemouth (it’s now a city) and continued to live in it until their deaths. From what I can ascertain, the shop/cafe building was created a lot later, in 2000.

Due to the couple’s love of beautiful objects and their interest in culture, there is a monumental amount to see. And everything gives you a firm idea of the interests and values westerners of the time looked for in the ‘exotic’. Joining these objects are a vast number of artworks, many from back in the day, and some closer to our own time. Owing to our discoveries of how light fades things, the blinds over almost every window are pulled down; only a few rooms have natural light to see by. I went to Russell-Cotes not knowing much about it other than it looked like it would be a place I’d love, so I was unprepared for the relative darkness and I didn’t have a polariser with me – please forgive the blurry lights in these photographs.

So, we begin just a little inside. We have gone into the new, left-hand side building, bought our tickets, walked through the shops and up a staircase into the large cafe. Our trip starts beside the cafe’s fridge where we find a narrow corridor – the modern building opens straight into the house and we are, in many ways, about to step back in time.

A photograph of the dining room - the table is in the centre and a grand fireplace is on the right-hand side wall

As you get to the house-end of the rather short corridor, you step into the dining room, just as you see above. This is your first example of what you’re going to find as you venture further in. It’s all rather fantastical in this room, and you can walk around freely (more on walking around later). Everything is detailed, even the high ceiling and the area just above the coving is covered in artwork – peacocks. Besides the cafe entrance, there are three doors leading out of this room. One right next to the corridor’s door, that leads to a grand hall, one at the left end, and one opposite that which leads to a conservatory (where the daylight is coming from). The conservatory is currently closed to visitors – there are a number of buckets on the floor; Bournemouth are looking for donations to restore it.

A photograph of the dining room from another angle which shows where the door to the conservatory is

I’m not going to take you through to the hallway just yet, but I will tell you in advance that in this house, almost every room backs out into the hallway – the rooms of the house are clustered in groups of two or three in the corners and sides behind the hallway, both ground and second floor – so there’s no real linear way to go around; it’s really up to you.

A photograph of the morning room, bare except for a line of chairs, the fireplace, and a few pieces of artwork

I’ve taken you through the left-end door and into the morning room. It was in fact a study for Merton; his desk was a table originally made for Napoleon. The present-day room, as you see, is very bland compared to almost every other room; parts of the ceiling started coming down around 1928, and it’s believed that the original design is behind the one there now. War damage created more problems. Bournemouth have decided to restore the room to its 1949 appearance as they don’t have enough details of what it looked like prior to that year. This is of course a pity, but, when you see the rest of the house you may in fact be grateful for the pause in grandeur.

A photograph of the morning room's ceiling - a naked woman sat in a shell in the clouds with cherubs around her

This is a section of the ceiling that has been restored.

A photograph of the drawing room - the hall door on the left, and a dresser and fireplace at the end

Carrying on through the morning room and you get to the drawing room, a room you could probably identify without the information board, it’s so much of what you’d expect. Even with the blinds down it’s incredibly light and airy.

Now. Now you turn out of the room and through that door you see in the left of the photograph, and enter the hall.

A photograph of the hall

It’s no exaggeration to say that I fell in love with this room. I found an excuse to go back to it a good few times and I’d have been happy to stay there all day. The view you see above was taken from a few feet away from the end looking towards the dining room door. The opposite view is also spectacular, perhaps more so, with its sunken pool and grand piano, but the gorgeous potted plant that rounds it off unfortunately means that a 2D photo doesn’t work so well. So, to the left, where you see the pillar, is the drawing room; behind me, effectively, is the gallery, which we’ll come back to. Beside me on the right is the lift with decorated doors, the size of which suggests an old store room. Then, you can just see them, are the stairs.

A photograph of the staircase, which is one wide set of stairs and then a set right and left

If I could sit at the bottom of these stairs and read all day, I’d be happy. I considered it – I could have. The door to the right leads to the Ladies; I considered taking a photograph because the room, split into three parts and almost certainly always used as a toilet, was just as decorative as the other rooms.

Up the stairs, and both side staircases go to the mezzanine floor. Looking at the photo above, on the sort of mini floor/turnabout space you can see before the left staircase begins, are a couple of small rooms that are roped off but visible.

A photograph of the mezzanine floor, walls covered by paintings

This photo was taken from the same end of the hall as the one downstairs. The area is slightly smaller – the mezzanine ends roughly where the marble pillars downstairs are situated, but again all rooms lead from it. We’re going to the doorway you see on the right.

A photograph of the study

The study is on the left of the doorway; it’s a beautiful little room just big enough to walk around. Essentially split in two parts, the study gives you an idea for the rest of the upper floor.

The room to the right of this cluster isn’t pictured because that room is smaller, black-walled, and simply holds paintings, photos, and memorabilia of Henry Irving, the the very-famous stage actor for whom we’ve lots of contemporary accounts and reviews but, due to the time period, no video footage.

A photograph of the Arabesque anti-room showing the doorways to other rooms

Back out, and we’ll go to the left-hand cluster. The rooms here are joined by a sort of anteroom in the Arab style. It’s difficult to get a proper photo – I didn’t want to lie down – so I decided to take one that gives you a general idea and shows you how the clusters work. The pink room to the right is the boudoir, and the room on the left has been turned into a big display, various ‘exotic’ items behind glass.

A photograph of the Boudoir

This is the pink Boudoir room for the lady of the house, split in two like the study.

A photograph of the garden from the perspective of the building - we look down towards the sea

Japanese-esque, the room features dressers like the others, but then the sitting area that’s really quite lovely.

I haven’t included a photo of the display room – it’s difficult to get a photograph without simply showing the objects and the relatively plain wall (compared to the others). From here, however, you walk straight into the bedroom.

A photograph of the table and chairs in the bedroom, set in the bay window area

Annie Russell-Cotes’ room, where she passed away, is a lot simpler than the others, thought there’s a lot of space to move freely. This room is the third with a bay window, and it’s situated at the far right end of the original house. Behind and to the right is where the bed is, and behind and centre is a dresser. Beside the dresser the door leads back to the mezzanine.

A photograph of the Mikado room

From here there’s just two more rooms: the Mikado room, above, and a small display room with one object for each letter of the alphabet. Highlights in that second room include a painting of a native New Zealander, a piece of a gown that belonged to Marie Antoinette, and a suit of Samurai armour.

A photograph of the entrance to the galleries

We go back downstairs and to the end of the hall that was behind me in the photograph. This leads to the 1909 extension.

Full of light and utterly different, the three rooms from here compose the gallery, where collections of artworks from a few artists adorn the walls, statues stand in glory, and, just like many galleries, there are lots of seats to sit on. The day I came to the Museum, an overcast day mid November (last week if you’re reading this at the time of posting) the twenty or so other visitors were all artists and most were sat making studies in these rooms. I’ve no idea if it was a one-off trip or if, like Virginia Woolf’s house, this place simply welcomes artists generally, but it was rather wonderful. It added to the relaxed atmosphere of the place – there’s no one route around the house; you wander at will.

A photograph of marble 'gateway' of the first gallery

The second gallery hosts more paintings and some decorative plates, and the third, a lot smaller, boasts a collection of tiles.

A photograph of marble 'gateway' of the first gallery

Looking around Russell-Cotes (for, apart from the garden which is a quick visit, we have reached the end of our tour) doesn’t take very long. If you’re the type to take in more of the whole than study in detail you can easily get round it in about an hour. A little longer if you want to stop in, on your way back, at the cafe. The detail-oriented will want to schedule at least double that time. There are parts of the house that I haven’t covered today – there are tours available at certain times that take you around areas that aren’t always open – that you may want to look into.

Owing to the period and style, access will be difficult if you struggle with walking or are in a wheelchair. The lift does allow a fair amount of access to the ground floor but getting around may be difficult – that is relevant to everyone.

A photograph of the painted glass ceiling in the hall

After I had been to Brighton Pavillion and again after Cardiff Castle, I wondered if anything could top those places. It’s been a few years since I visited them and I was starting to think that at least in Britain, finding a place that beat them would be hard. Well, they are both stunning, but in a great many ways, Russell-Cotes far surpasses anywhere I’ve ever been and, needless to say, it’s worth every moment.

 
 

Kelly

November 22, 2019, 5:39 pm

This place looks incredible! I can see how it would provide hours of entertainment.

Laurie @ RelevantObscurity

November 22, 2019, 8:05 pm

Charlie, I really enjoy these ‘days out’ kind of posts that take us on a historical tour of interesting places. And the photos are gorgeous. Thanks!

Charlie

November 25, 2019, 3:08 pm

Kelly: Oh it could. I expect it’s very busy in the summer and likely feels less welcoming for that, but definitely outside of that you could well spend all day there.

Laurie: I’m glad to hear that, and thank you!

jessicabookworm

December 1, 2019, 8:16 pm

For the first time in these lovely visiting posts you do, I can say I’ve been there! As my mum lives on the south coast not far from Bournemouth. I absolutely love how gothic, over-the-top and kooky the place is, and the outside reminds of the house in the Casper film. :-D

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