Founded by Sir Merton and Lady Russell-Cotes at the turn of the twentieth century, the house is a rare survivor as the residence of a Victorian private collector.
It was purpose-built and continues as a permanent art museum. The Art Journal acknowledged that “Mr Russell-Cotes has devoted considerable time to the bringing together of probably the most notable collection of modern works of Art in the extreme south of England.” (1895, Art Journal, London: J.S Virtue & Co. Ltd., 83)
Originally from Tettenhall in Staffordshire, Merton Cotes came from a middle-class family. He hyphenated his middle and last names to signify a claimed link with Lord Russell, the Duke of Bedford. It was his move to Glasgow and his friendship with John King Clark, which introduced him to literary and artistic circles. It is from these days that we can trace his interest in art and collecting paintings that became his lifelong passion. King Clark also introduced him to his only daughter, Annie Nelson Clark.
In 1860, he married Annie and they moved to Dublin, where he worked for the Scottish Amicable Society for 16 years. Merton struggled with poor health and, as a result, the couple moved to Bournemouth in 1876 with their three children. They bought the Bath Hotel on Christmas Day 1876 and later extended and extensively refurbished it, re-opening it as the Royal Bath Hotel in 1880.
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 the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), Oscar Wilde, actor Sir Henry Irving, artist, Sir Hubert Von Herkomer and Sir Benjamin Disraeli.
Eventually the collections outgrew the hotel and in 1897, the couple commissioned the unique and eccentric East Cliff Hall. It was intended as a home, but also as a showcase for their sizeable collections of Victorian art and artefacts amassed on their world travels. Merton wrote: “I made up my mind to construct it architecturally to combine the Renaissance with Italian and old Scottish baronial styles”.
The house (now a Grade II* Listed Building) reflects Moorish, Japanese and French decorative styles alongside contemporary Victorian design. The interiors provide a context for their extensive collections of artefacts, furnishings, sculpture and paintings. Completed in 1901, East Cliff Hall was one of the last Victorian villas to be built in the town.
Text adapted from The Story of the Russell-Cotes Art Collection by Gwen Yarker © Gwen Yarker/Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, 2008.