Bournemouth’s historic Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum was built as a lavish birthday present – but now everyone has the chance to appreciate its beauty 

Oozing charm, unique character and historical importance, The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum is the jewel in Bournemouth’s crown and attracts a worldwide audience.

Sitting proudly overlooking Bournemouth Pier, Russell-Cotes was completed in 1901 and is one of the last Victorian Villas ever to be built.

Today, Russell-Cotes showcases a collection of British and world art, and is now available for weddings, private hire and corporate functions.

The Russell-Cotes love story encapsulates the essence of how this house came to be one of Dorset’s most treasured landmarks that is still admired and respected by all. In 1901, Merton Russell-Cotes gave his wife Annie a dream house on Bournemouth’s cliff-top, overlooking the sea. It was an extraordinary, extravagant birthday present – lavish, splendid and with a touch of fantasy. They filled this exotic seaside villa with beautiful objects from their travels across the world and lined the walls with a remarkable collection of British art, creating a unique atmosphere in a most dramatic setting – a home, an art gallery and a museum. Then they sealed it in time and gave it to the future.

Sir Merton and Lady Russell-Cotes were the founders of the RussellCotes Art Gallery and Museum. Merton Russell-Cotes and Annie Nelson Clark were both born in 1835. They married in 1860 and started their married life in Dublin where they lived for 16 years and had five children together.

Merton was always prone to ill health, especially suffering attacks of bronchitis. It was recommended that he spend the spring in the south of England, where the weather would suit him better, and even consider moving their permanently. At that time Bournemouth was still a small, select health resort so Merton and Annie stayed in the Bath Hotel. During their stay the owner of the hotel, Arthur Briant, suggested that Merton might like to purchase the hotel – and so it was that Merton took over the hotel on Christmas Day, 1876. The couple obtained a mortgage to enable them to completely refurbish the hotel, reopening as a luxury hotel in 1880. Merton soon began to develop his interest in fine art and sculpture, and many of the items purchased were displayed at the hotel.

In 1884 they set off again on their travels, to Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, although Merton was once again suffering from ill-health. It was at this time that they decided to visit Japan which was an inspirational trip. At the end of their visit they had managed to fill over 100 cases with lacquer ware, ceramics, textiles, armour and metalwork from Japan.

When they returned to Bournemouth they dedicated one room in the hotel to their new collection. Annie and Merton established themselves at the centre of Bournemouth social and political life. Merton in particular wanted to be known as a cultivated gentleman and connoisseur of the arts.

In 1894 Merton became mayor of Bournemouth but his reputation as a gentleman collector was spreading far and wide. The couple undertook many civic and charitable projects. But perhaps the one dearest to them was the establishment of East Cliff Hall, the house at the core of the current Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum.

Inextricably linked with the house is the decision to gift the house and its contents to the people of Bournemouth. The house was completed and presented to Annie on her birthday in 1901. Although built as a home and reflecting the very personal tastes of its owners, the house was also designed to be used as a public space – perhaps looking to the time when it would become a museum.

In 1907 at the opening of Undercliff Drive it was revealed that Merton intended to present Bournemouth with the collection of paintings, art and curiosities which had been collected from all parts of the world.

Giving the house and its contents over to the town was an extraordinary act of generosity, however one of the conditions was that the Russell-Cotes themselves would be permitted “to live peaceably and quietly and to use the premises as a place of residence”.

As it was the public were initially only allowed in on the first Wednesday of each month, having first purchased a ticket from the town clerk. Between 1913 and 1919 Merton and Annie planned an extension to East Cliff Hall with the addition of three new art galleries. It nearly didn’t happen as the First World War intervened but Annie was able to purchase the freehold with the intention of presenting them to the town at a later date.

Merton began purchasing works of art for the new galleries in 1917 and individually supervised the design and decoration of the new galleries and composed the inscriptions above each of the entrances, which you can see today.

1920 marked the end of an era on Annie’s death. Merton died shortly after in 1921. The museum was officially opened to the public on 10 March, 1922. The couple’s son Herbert and daughter Ella paid for the addition of a fourth gallery which had been included in the plan of 1916. Today, Russell-Cotes is still admired by many.

The building is a mix of French and Italian Renaissance and Scottish Baronial style. This unique building is available for exclusive hire for wedding ceremonies, receptions, Victorian private dining and corporate events. Full day hire is also available. It is unique as it is preserved as it was lived in including the “hang” of the paintings - it is as it was in the owner’s day.

To get married in a setting of such historical importance is very special. The Main Hall, with its magnificent staircase, is one of the most extravagant rooms licensed for up to 50 guests. Providing a dramatic setting for your wedding ceremony, it boasts a rare Zodiac-sign stained-glass skylight, grand piano and striking sun-design mosaic fountain. The Main Hall is also home to Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece Venus Verticordia, one of the most famous paintings in the world. Your ceremony can be enhanced by a drinks reception, sit down meal or evening function, set in these gorgeous surroundings.

The Drawing Room is also available for intimate ceremonies, up to 25 people. The doors were originally designed for an 18th century Florentine palazzo. The sofa and chairs in this room belonged to Queen Victoria and the impressive large French cabinet belonged to the Empress Eugenie of France, wife of Napoleon III.

The Edwardian Galleries were opened on Merton and Annie’s Wedding Anniversary in 1919 by Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria. Gallery ll is the largest room licensed for weddings and can accommodate up to 80 guests. For an unforgettable wedding entrance, the bride’s arrival walk via the magnificent staircase and through the Main Hall is simply perfect. You and your guests pass an exquisite collection of captivating artefacts, world-famous paintings and stunning sculptures – creating a unique wedding experience like no other.

The Russell-Cotes is a stunning venue encased in romance and unique historical importance – a perfect venue for the most important day of your life.

Visit, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth,

Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty 

Next month Bournemouth’s Russell-Cotes welcomes world exclusive new retrospective, Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty, running from April 1 to September 27, 2015. After a gap of almost 15 years, The Mucha Foundation returns to the UK to create this specially commissioned exhibition in partnership with RussellCotes Art Gallery & Museum. Czech master of Art Nouveau and the quintessential artist of fin-de-siècle Paris, Alphonse Mucha’s distinctive style explored feminine beauty through poster design, magazines and even baby food packaging. John and Sarah Mucha, Alphonse Mucha’s grandson and his wife and the directors of The Mucha Foundation, said; “The Mucha Foundation and family are delighted to present this exhibition in the RussellCotes Art Gallery & Museum. “We have enjoyed the opportunity offered by the sumptuous ambience and inspiring collections of the Russell-Cotes to explore links between Mucha's work and philosophy and the contemporary Aesthetic movement in Britain. “As Dorset residents, we are delighted to be able to share Mucha’s work with our local community – we hope you will enjoy the exhibition.” Law firm and sponsors of the exhibition, Humphries Kirk worked with the Mucha Family since before the fall of the Berlin Wall in order to preserve the Mucha Collection and the artistic heritage of Alphonse Mucha for current and future generations. 

  • Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty runs from Wednesday, April 1 to Sunday, September 27, 2015. Entrance to the Russell-Cotes includes the exhibition and costs £6, with Gift Aid. Concessions available for groups of 10+ people - book in advance on 01202 451820