The Art Collections
The distinctive tastes and personalities of Merton and Annie are still very much preserved today in the style of the building and the range of artwork on display.
In his voluminous autobiography, Home and Abroad (1921), Merton stated that “Art in all its various phases has always been my strong weakness”. The founding and subsequent acquisitions amount to something of a grand tour through art history. Indeed, commentators often surmise that his purchase of this impressive selection of paintings was driven by a self-conscious attempt to demonstrate his artistic connoisseurship and liberal patronage of the arts, as opposed to an interest in excellent individual works of art. But whilst, undoubtedly, vanity was a factor in Merton’s ambitions, the quality of the key works are undeniable.
Merton’s collecting activities mirrored those of the nouveaux riches merchants and industrialists of Britain’s cities, such as Liverpool, Bristol and Manchester. Generated by the products of Empire and burgeoning industry, the new wealth of these self-made men fuelled a huge boom in art. Eager to display their taste and affluence, these men endowed art galleries and museums on an unprecedented scale. Since most were associated with the great cities of the industrial North, Merton was relatively unusual among museum founders in being established in a town in the south of England. It is perhaps no coincidence that he too came from the industrial North, where there were many role models. His generosity to the public is comparable to that of Sir Henry Tate and Lord Leverhulme. Yet his was not a ‘museum’ approach, but rather he treated his collecting as a dynamic entity. As his interests changed, he regularly bought and sold paintings from artists and dealers, and ‘traded up’ as paintings came onto the market. Generally a shrewd customer, he sought out copies of famous works from artists whose reputations were on the wane and were therefore cheaper, such as Edwin Long and William Powell Frith.
Whilst idiosyncratic and personal, Merton’s choice of subjects was typical of the taste of the middle-class Victorian art collector. Like many of his contemporaries, he admired high art and favoured work that affirmed his own belief sets. He saw history painting (including Biblical, mythological and literary subjects) as the pinnacle of the recognised hierarchy of themes. He was fond of landscapes, small genre scenes and animal subjects and admired works with a ‘plein air’ approach. However, his tastes were generally conservative and did not extend to impressionism, the avant-gard or the abstract.
Sir Edwin Landseer
A particular favourite was Flood in the Highlands (1864) by Edwin Landseer, as shown in the marble bust effigy above. This reduced-sized version of the 1860 painting was produced by Landseer for the dealer, Louis Flatow, and is based on a real incident in the Highlands from 1829. The popularity of Landseer’s work reflected a national preoccupation with animals, hunting, pet-keeping and the rugged landscape of the Scottish highlands. The Scottish theme resonated with Annie’s Scots ancestry and the couple’s Scottish interests, and was contextualised within the Scottish baronial style of East Cliff Hall.
Merton’s admiration for Landseer’s work was also strengthened by the knowledge of the artist’s relationship with the royal family. Merton’s penchant for name-dropping and social-climbing (which resonates with today’s cult of the celebrity) meant that he was often most captivated by the works of famous artists whom he could claim as friends. Imagine his delight when in February 1919 Princess Beatrice opened the new art galleries at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum and recalled seeing the painting hanging in Flatlow’s villa on the Riviera. Merton was proud of his connections to artists and celebrities and saw himself as champion of British artists.