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Mysterious Museum

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Objects and Paintings to Inspire you at Halloween

Historic Houses have always occupied a strange, liminal kind of space, between the present and the past, and where each object and painting represents a window into a whole other world.

Here at the Russell-Cotes, the lives of Merton and Annie shine through every element of your visit. It feels like you may bump into them around any corner, as if they have only just left the room. Their presence and absence sit alongside each other, making a visit both strange and wonderful.

Across many cultures, this season – as autumn gives way to winter – has always been a time when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, when you might easily slip into the otherworld.

Here are seven weird, sinister or otherworldly items from the Russell-Cotes collection that may transport you into stranger places. See if you can find them as you explore the historic house…

Death Mask of Sir Henry Irving

Irving Room

Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) was one of the greatest stars of the Victorian stage. He died on 13 October 1905 of a stroke, shortly after finishing a performance of Becket at the Theatre Royal, Bradford.

The sculptor Sir James Frampton (1860-1928) produced his death mask. Death masks had been created extensively since the Medieval period, but there was a particular resurgence of interest in them during the Victorian era, when science and spirituality existed very comfortably side by side.

Relief Sculpture of Kali

Yellow Room

This is a stone carved high relief sculpture from India, of Kali – the Hindu goddess of death and time.

The goddess is wearing a garland of skulls around her neck, and a skirt of dismembered arms, while holding a sword in one of her four hands, and a freshly severed head. The head is said to represent the human ego, which must be destroyed in order to achieve enlightenment.

Kali is standing on the body of Shiva who lies beneath her, bound with a number of snakes. While depicted in this fearsome and terrible form, Kali is often understood to be a great protector figure.  

Tengu Netsuke

Mikado’s Room

Here is one of the museum’s netsuke (a small, intricately carved toggle) in the form of a Tengu. He is using his incredibly long nose to stir mochi (rice cake).

These mythical creatures are considered either yōkai, Japanese monsters, spirits or demons, or kami, gods of the Japanese indigenous religion Shintō. Tengu are traditionally thought to bring good luck and prosperity in business.

The common depiction of Tengu is bright red in colour and featuring a remarkably long nose. See if you can find this little figure somewhere in the Mikado’s Room.

Crocodile Head Lyre

Green Room

This extraordinary lyre uses a crocodile’s head as a sound box so that as the strings are plucked, music resonates from the crocodile’s skull.

It originally belonged to the Victorian artist Frederick Goodall (1822-1904). Goodall found commercial success as a painter of English pastoral scenes, but his trip to Egypt in 1858 sparked a lifelong passion for orientalism.

The instrument may have been made specifically as a collector’s piece for European tourists, or it may have been a functional musical instrument intended to summon and channel the unique qualities of the crocodile.

The Habit Does Not Make the Monk, G.F. Watts


A painting full of sinister qualities, this image of a mischievous cherub is by the artist George Frederic Watts.

The figure depicted may appear childlike, but there is a unsettling feel to the way in which he is looking mockingly straight out at the viewer, revealing his true self from beneath the cowl of a holy man.

His body seems slightly out of proportion, so perhaps he is even part way through some kind of physical transformation – a shapeshifter and a trickster.

Death Clock

Drawing Room

This beautiful but strange French clock is a classic example of a Death Clock. These clocks were named not for the subject matter, but for the high mortality rate of the gilders, as the process of decorating the clocks used mercury which was highly poisonous.

The subject depicted is also somewhat otherworldly, with the old figure of Death holding his hourglass and scythe, alongside his companion Youth, rowing a boat along the river of time. The clock is decorated with monstrous faces.

Come and see all these wonderful objects and more – book your tickets here.

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