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)
Merton Russell-Cotes was born in Wolverhampton in 1835 to Samuel Cotes a travelling iron ware salesman and his wife Elizabeth. The youngest of seven children Merton was six when his father died. The family was left in dire straits deprived of their main breadwinner and it is likely Merton was sent out to work as soon as he was able. Merton later hyphenated his middle and last names to signify a claimed link with Lord Russell, the Duke of Bedford.
Annie was also born in 1835 in Glasgow to Ann Nelson and John King Clark. Her father was a cotton factory owner who experienced periods of great commercial success as well as the crushing lows of bankruptcy. From the age of 14 Annie was privately educated in London and Liverpool where it is probable that the teenage Annie and Merton were introduced through mutual church and business interests. It was Annie’s father that introduced Merton 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.
In 1860 when Annie and Merton were both 24 they married. A devoted couple throughout their marriage they went on to have five children Ella, Charlotte, Clara, Anita and Herbert. However Charlotte died aged 7 and Anita died aged 4.
At the time of his marriage Merton was a travelling salesman and continued to work as such for the next ten years. A man of ambition Merton wanted more than the arduous demands that that the world of commercial travelling provided. In 1868 Merton purchased the lease of the Hanover Hotel, Glasgow, which he would later go onto personally manage.
Merton struggled with poor health and, as a result, the couple moved to Bournemouth in 1876 with their three surviving 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, 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.