Welcome to East Cliff Hall
This sumptuous Victorian villa was built for Annie Russell-Cotes by her husband Merton as a home for both the couple and their extensive collections in 1901.
To visit this Victorian treasure trove, follow the corridor past the café and into the historic house…
Download the entire digital guide
Alternatively, explore the rooms individually below
The Main Hall was the focus of East Cliff Hall, and was designed to impress. It features an eclectic mix of styles, taking inspiration from Italian courtyards and Japanese aesthetics.
This room is divided into two sections: the double-height Hall and a Gallery. The ornamental mosaic fountain was inspired by the Arab Hall in the home of the artist, Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), which Merton visited before building this house. The stained-glass skylight depicts the arc of the sun and the twelve signs of the zodiac. It is a replica of the original which was destroyed during the East Cliff bombing raid of 7 October 1941. This is the same raid which took down the ceiling of the adjacent Morning Room.
At the far end, the Main Hall Gallery was designed to house a billiard table. However, it soon became an extension of the Main Hall, and was filled with paintings, ceramics, sculptures and suits of armour. The inglenook fireplace was replaced with stained glass doors in 1916 to provide access to new Art Galleries. The ceiling is decorated with Japanese mon (family crests) and the pillars are made of scagliola (plaster imitating marble).
As you move up the grand staircase, look to the left and you will see the original entrance. Merton’s guests entered the building from the roadside, and the first thing that they would have seen would have been the wonderful stencils and tiles decorating the entranceway. On the floor you will see a motif bearing Annie’s initials in the mosaic, celebrating the fact that this building was created for her.
Before the addition of the art galleries, this was where Annie and Merton displayed their paintings, frequently changing them to highlight their latest purchases.
The glass dome above the staircase depicts a wonderful extravaganza of the night sky, with bats, owls, stars and comets, in contrast to the skylight and the fountain in the Main Hall, which both depict the daily transition of the sun, from sunrise to dusk.
As well as many custom-designed decorations, East Cliff Hall is also full of upmarket off-the-shelf décor. For example, the ceiling above the staircase is framed by a gilded plaster panel reproduction of the Parthenon Frieze. This piece was bought from the Tynecastle Co. Ltd, a company which produced wallpapers and mouldings for fashionable interiors of the day.
Unfortunately, the decorators installed the panel incorrectly, so the sacrificial procession is walking away from the seated Greek deities. Perhaps not quite the impressive décor that Merton was hoping for!
The Irving Room
A museum within a museum, this room pays homage to Merton’s friend and one of the biggest names of the Victorian stage, Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905).
Irving was an actor-manager who enjoyed huge success, particularly at London’s Lyceum, alongside the actress Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928). Famous for his acting style in plays such as ‘The Bells’ and ‘Hamlet’, he was also a theatrical innovator, being the first person to dim the auditorium lights to highlight the stage. He is also reputed to be the inspiration behind ‘Dracula’, which was written by his stage manager, Bram Stoker (1847-1912). The actor was a frequent visitor to Bournemouth and stayed at the Royal Bath Hotel on a number of occasions.
Merton acquired a collection of memorabilia, from the human skull used in ‘Hamlet’, to Irving’s stage make-up. A large proportion of the collection was obtained from Christie’s auction of ‘theatrical relics’ in 1905. Merton converted his library into the Irving Museum, attracting donations of more Irving related objects.
Despite being referred to as the Study, this is not where Merton liked to work – he preferred to do his paperwork downstairs in the Dining Room. Here Merton relaxed, read and smoked cigars, surrounded by some of his favourite paintings, furniture and ceramics. The blue and white china was particularly fashionable at the time.
Merton’s coat of arms can be seen above the doorway, while the tiles surrounding the fireplace were specially commissioned by Carter’s of Poole (later Poole Pottery) to show his monogram, motto and the motif from his crest.
The Tynecastle wallpaper is embossed flax. It is in the Stuart pattern, whilst the frieze, also Tynecastle, shows the fleur-de-lys, the English rose and Scottish thistle, possibly intended to represent Merton and Annie’s nationalities. The ceiling mural shows Japanese influences and a repeating bird motif, which is echoed throughout the house.
The Moorish Alcove
The elaborate decoration of this alcove was inspired by Annie and Merton’s visit to the Moorish Palace of Alhambra, Granada, Spain, in 1910.
The alcove features trompe l’oeil decoration. Trompe l’oeil, meaning ‘trick of the eye’, is a technique which creates the illusion of three dimensions through decorating a two-dimensional surface. The yellow jug is an example of this technique. When you visit the neighbouring Yellow Room, see if you can spot the real jug which provided the inspiration for this decorative feature.
The Arabic script written below the dome translates as ‘There is no Victor but God’ repeated twelve times. Originally, the fully glazed dome was not intended to house a central light. However, Annie and Merton may have realised that at night, or on dark winter days, this area was too gloomy and added a light.
The Boudoir was Annie’s private room. Here she would relax, write letters and read. In contrast to the masculine dark colours or Merton’s Study next door, the Boudoir’s pink walls and delicate decorations mark it as a feminine space.
Annie’s interest in flora and fauna is highlighted by the beautiful butterfly fire screen. The collection and display of natural specimens – fossils, shells, animals and insects – was extremely popular in fashionable Victorian homes. It demonstrated scientific interest, as well as bringing nature inside and showcasing wealth.
Princess Beatrice (1857-1944), the youngest daughter of Queen Victoria, took tea here after formally opening the art galleries in February 1919. Unfortunately, Annie had been too ill to attend the ceremony that took place downstairs. The Davenport tea service they used is displayed on the top shelf of the large rosewood display cabinet.
The Yellow Room
This light and airy room was originally Annie’s bedroom. Inspired by her passion for natural history, the coving decoration features delicate depictions of British flora and fauna.
We have no photographic record of Annie and Merton’s bedrooms, so have used photographs of their suite in the Royal Bath Hotel as the inspiration for the reimagining of these rooms. This room features objects and paintings from our world cultures collection, in homage to Annie and Merton’s love of travel.
Annie was interested in world cultures and natural history and acquired collections of curios during her world travels. She was fascinated by indigenous cultures, particularly the traditions of the Aboriginal Australians and Maoris, showing empathy and respect for their culture.
The Red Room
This room was originally Merton’s bedroom. Merton and Annie had separate but interconnected bedrooms with single beds. This was a common practice amongst middle-class Victorian couples.
The ceiling mural depicts the birth of the Roman goddess, Venus, and was intended to be viewed whilst lying in bed. A fretwork screen separated the room, creating a sitting area in the bay window, giving views across the Bay from Old Harry Rocks on the Isle of Purbeck to the Needles on the Isle of Wight.
The bedrooms were extensively remodelled after the couple’s deaths, in preparation for opening the house as a museum. This included the removal of the screens and fireplaces. There are no photographs of the room as it used to look, so we have filled it with some of Merton’s favourite paintings and objects. Photographs of the Royal Bath Hotel show that the couple slept surrounded by their collection.
The Mikado’s Room
In 1885 Annie and Merton Russell-Cotes set off on an 18-month round-the-world trip. Although they visited many countries, Japan had the greatest impact on them and inspired the purchase of many artefacts.
The couple had already commissioned a Japanese Drawing Room at the Royal Bath Hotel, decorated with murals inspired by the country. When they returned from their trip, they added to this with their new collection.
Annie intended to create a similar display in East Cliff Hall and after her death Merton fulfilled her wishes, turning the Blue Bedroom into the Mikado’s Room.
The Russell-Cotes’ A-Z
Here you can explore the quirks of the Russell-Cotes’ collection in just 26 objects.
The Print Room
This room, which was originally where Merton’s secretary slept, now features changing displays. The current display is John Thomas: The Japanese Portfolio of a Victorian Decorator
John Thomas (c. 1826-c. 1901) was the principal decorator of East Cliff Hall (now the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum). His work can be seen on ceilings, walls, covings, and even stained-glass throughout the building. In 1861, he published a portfolio of Japanese-inspired prints, predominately of nature scenes. Based on woodblock prints by Japanese artists, many of the images were to form the inspiration behind the decorations in East Cliff Hall. To celebrate the 160th anniversary of the portfolio’s publication, a selection of sketches from Merton Russell-Cotes’ personal copy are on display
Now continue down the main staircase
The Ladies’ Loo
Ladies, don’t forget to powder your nose in our fabulous toilette…
This toilet, originally for Annie and Merton’s guests, features handstencilled
rose and pinecone motifs. The rose symbolises Merton’s
English heritage and the pinecone alludes to Bournemouth’s famous
The Art Galleries
In 1916 Annie commissioned an art gallery extension. This was to create more space for their ever-growing collection and to prepare for transition to a public museum. It also allowed the proper display of many of their larger works. Construction was slow as there were severe labour shortages due to the First World War.
Galleries I-III were officially opened by Princess Beatrice on Merton and Annie’s 59th Wedding Anniversary in 1919. Unfortunately, Annie was unable to attend the formal opening downstairs due to ill health, however, she took tea with Princess Beatrice (1857-1944) directly after the formal ceremony in her Boudoir.
Original plans show that the intention was for the fourth gallery to feature an observatory and visitor entrance. Annie’s ill health, along with other issues, meant that this was never realised by the couple. In 1926, a simpler version of Gallery IV was built, funded by Herbert (1870-1932) and Ella (1860-1954), the surviving children of Merton and Annie, to carry out their parents’ wishes.
Merton had an interest in collecting art from an early age. Most of his collection focused on work by major contemporary British artists, including Edwin Long, John Brett and William Etty. In addition to some notable Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the Russell-Cotes art collection reflects the popular themes of the time such as portraits, animals, children, landscapes and history paintings. Whilst he clearly favoured works associated with the establishment, particularly the Royal Academy, he also collected a surprisingly large number of paintings by pioneering female artists.
Following Annie and Merton’s deaths in 1920 and 1921, East Cliff Hall opened fully to the public in 1922 as the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. Since then, the collections have continuously grown, thanks to the Russell-Cotes family and the efforts of succeeding generations of curators, the generosity of donors, art collectors, funders and artists and their families.
Galleries III and IV
Galleries III and IV host temporary exhibitions. Each painting and artwork on display in these galleries has its own exhibition label and is therefore not featured in the digital guide.
The Drawing Room
Traditionally, a Drawing Room was a formal room for entertaining guests and for ladies to ‘withdraw’ to after dinner. However, Annie and Merton preferred to use this room to display their fine collection of European ceramics and furniture.
The opulent doors to this room were purchased on a whim from a smoke damaged Florentine palazzo; they quickly became the inspiration for the room’s design scheme, forcing the architect to start again from scratch. The doors were intended to be left open, showing the torch and quiver motif that is found in the stained glass, furniture, fretwork screen and coving.
The beautiful rosewood display cabinet originally belonged to Empress Eugénie of France (1826-1920), wife of Napoléon III (1808-1873), and was bought by Merton at auction. When the Empress visited Bournemouth, she was shocked to see the cabinet again at the Royal Bath Hotel. She sent Merton a diamond ring, possibly as a gift in exchange for the return of her cabinet. Merton, however, chose to keep the ring and the cabinet.
The Morning Room
Originally used by Annie and Merton for breakfast and relaxation, this room now showcases highlights of the museum’s 20th century works. In the spirit of the museum’s founders, we continue to collect works of art and many of these later additions have become true stars of the collection.
Portions of the original ceiling came down as early as 1928. However, the blast wave from a German parachute mine on 7 October 1941 finished it off and brought the entire ceiling down. A competition was held in 1948 to design a replacement.
The successful artist was Anna Zinkeisen (1901-1976) who was commissioned to create a scene from ancient Greek mythology depicting gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus. She was an official war artist and was also well known for her murals on R.M.S. Queen Mary and for her poster designs for London Transport.
The Dining Room
The perfect place for entertaining guests, East Cliff Hall’s Dining Room was a fashionable room with all the Victorian mod-cons.
Living next door to their own hotel, the Royal Bath, had many advantages. Hotel staff would cook, clean and care for Annie, Merton and their guests on a rota basis. Food was brought over and would be prepared in the kitchen and scullery – where our café kitchen is today. When the next course was required, it could be requested with the touch of a button via a discreet floor-mounted bell push. The corridor, where you entered, was once part of the butler’s pantry area.
Setting the atmosphere with dark red wallpaper and mahogany furnishings, typical of the popular Scottish Baronial style, the room is framed by an impressive Japanese style gilded peacock and pomegranate mural. It was painted by John Thomas (c.1826-1901), who had also decorated the Royal Bath Hotel.
The dark red décor was traditionally used in dining rooms to show meat on the plate at its best. The stained-glass windows reveal the patriotism and imperialism of the Russell-Cotes; four of the panes depict the Patron Saints of the United Kingdom, and others represent countries of the British Empire.
The Conservatory allowed Annie and Merton to enjoy the incomparable views of Poole Bay.
This room would have been filled with sculptures and exotic plants. Annie and Merton brought back cuttings from their world travels and would also use this space for potting and tending to them. In his autobiography, Merton recalls collecting cuttings near Napoleon Bonaparte’s (1769-1821) residence on the island of St Helena:
‘… we stopped to view the tomb where Napoleon was buried. We took cuttings of the gigantic weeping willow tree growing over the grave, which we kept in water, and which are now in East Cliff Hall gardens.’
We hope you had a lovely time visiting Annie and Merton’s fabulous home and we hope to see you again soon!