East Cliff Hall was completed in 1901 to house an exotic collection of artwork and artefacts from all around the world. Sitting upon a cliff at the Bournemouth seaside, the house was a gift to Annie Russell-Cotes by her husband Merton, and is now known as the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum. Unlike many immersive attractions, this one was not designed from scratch but rather painstakingly restored to closely match how it originally looked, telling the story of its inhabitants' adventures and taking guests on a vibrant journey through time.
Curator Duncan Walker explains the house's ability to take guests away from the modern world to feel like Victorian explorers themselves:
“I think it is the characters of our Founders, as expressed through their choices in the building’s décor and architecture, which draws our visitors in. The building is filled with messages both passive and overt.
“The building was built to impress and still does. We think of the building as an object in its own right- a three dimensional display case which people can walk around in.”
Meeting Mr. and Mrs. Russell-Cotes
Annie and Merton, the original owners of the house and its collection, become familiar characters to guests as they venture down hallways and into private rooms filled with curios.
“The material is arranged, more or less, as the Founders had it. We highlight their personal stories and world travels so there is a personal feel to it all. Some of the décor refers directly to them or things they cared about. The Scottish thistles for Lady Russell-Cotes and English roses for Sir Merton for example.”
Fantastical recreations of Victorian homes, such as the Brown house in Nanny McPhee or Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor, often carry a striking array of colour, but was it common for Victorian homes to be so elaborately vibrant?
“The new technologies and dyes that resulted from the industrial revolution meant that the Victorian era was very much more colourful than you might suppose. Because we have monochrome photographs for this period, we forget that it was a riot of colour.
“The house was decorated in expensive but commonly available wallpapers. It is great fun looking through the interior furnishing catalogues of the day and seeing which products were chosen for our walls. The Russell-Cotes’ owned and operated the adjacent Royal Bath Hotel which was even more lavishly decorated, and from what I can tell by looking at old photographs, things were actually slightly toned down in the house as compared to the hotel.”
Keeping the Spirit Alive
When the house and its artefacts were donated to the town as a museum in 1921, the curators did not hesitate to strip it for a more traditional museum setting. New curators began restoration in 1999, and had the task of recreating the rooms as close to how they once were as possible, allowing a thoroughly authentic experience.
“The decision was taken as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund project to return the building as much as possible to a circa 1907 appearance. Research was carried out via paper records, old photographs, personal reminiscences from the surviving granddaughter of the Russell-Cotes’, and physical investigations of the building. By removing non-original wallpapers and paint layers, clues to the original decoration scheme were found and investigation is always ongoing too.
“Where the original fixtures and fittings could not be found and restored to their place in the building, accurate replicas were made based on the images in catalogues the Founders used. For example, the electroliers (electric chandeliers) in the Study were remade as part of the project based on original photographs and the Hampton and Sons household furnishing catalogue the Russell-Cotes’ favoured.
“Managing a historic building exposed on a cliff top above the sea is a struggle. The physical care for the building falls to my colleague Miranda who has tirelessly striven to deal with the many problems we encounter, and we currently have an appeal in place to restore our fabulous conservatory. Sadly, it is suffering from the succession of rough weather winters, which seem to come with increasingly regularity. Anyone interested in helping us meet these challenges can help by becoming a Friend of the Russell-Cotes."
You can find out more about being a Friend and how to join via this link.
“We are currently halfway through a project to restore the skylights over our 1919 gallery extension. The skylights will be more effective at keeping light levels (both visible and ultra violet) to a point where we can display more of our delicate watercolours and drawings.
“A number of big exhibitions are planned to exploit this new capability. We are participating fully in the Royal Academy’s 250th anniversary celebrations and are planning an exhibition around the Pre-Raphaelite art movement, a strong point of our collections, in partnership with Southampton City Art Gallery. Much research has gone into both these areas of our collections and so, building on the success of our new guidebook, we will be looking to produce catalogues for these exhibitions to capture and present this knowledge.
“Looking further ahead we will be 100 years old as a museum in 2021. An event that will definitely marked with a proper birthday celebration! We are always seeking to improve things for our visitors, be it our exhibitions, café or garden– so all I can really say is at this stage is for people to watch this space.”