Art is now as much a part of the English seaside as fish and chips on the beach. Margate has Turner Contemporary, Hastings has The Jerwood Gallery and then there’s Bournemouth—with the granddaddy of them all. So, one sunny Saturday found me heading out of London Waterloo bound for a splash of culture on the south coast.
Jumping down from the train, I made straight for Bournemouth Pier—then turned to look back inland at what I’d come to see. Perched high above the promenade was the flamboyant former East Cliff Hall—now the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum—the treasure-stuffed extravaganza of wealthy Victorian entrepreneur Merton Russell-Cotes. Owner of an adjacent grand hotel, he built the mansion in 1901 as a gift for his wife, Annie.
If I was impressed by the turrets and balustrades of its fanciful exterior I was even more dazzled when I went inside. This was once home to a couple who travelled the world and brought back curiosities from every continent. When they went to Japan in 1885 they returned with 100 packing cases stuffed with objets d’art, many now displayed in The Mikado’s Room.
The couple’s enthusiasm for culture and life itself pours out of every artefact and architectural flourish. Golden peacocks strut around the wood-panelled dining room ceiling. A fountain surrounded by torchères sits at the centre of the Main Hall, its walls hung with lavish paintings including Rossetti’s sultry Venus Verticorda. There’s a Moorish alcove inspired by their visit to the Alhambra, a fanciful boudoir where Annie had tea with Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Beatrice and a room full of memorabilia associated with Shakespearean actor Henry Irving whom Merton greatly admired.
Victorian portraits, landscapes and genre scenes cover every surface; four art galleries unfold one after another, with sculptures, ceramics and works by artists like Alma-Tadema and Lord Leighton. Ethnographic pieces range from a Norwegian sleigh the couple brought back for their children to an Ashanti wisdom stool and an impressive model of a Maori canoe. It’s a heady mix, but there are seats among the palms in the conservatory to take a break and admire the sea views.
As if the permanent collection was not reason itself to visit, the Russell-Cotes is currently hosting an exhibition of works by William and Evelyn De Morgan: The De Morgans and the Sea. This display of paintings and ravishing Arts and Crafts ceramics is every inch as exuberant and colourful as the house in which they currently find themselves.
The Russell-Cotes sits in beautiful grounds that include a small Japanese garden and a grotto. I sat there in the sun, then wandered down to the beach below. And there, right on cue, was a Harry Ramsden’s fish and chips shop offering haddock in crunchy batter to complete my classic day out beside the sea.
Journey from London Waterloo to Bournemouth takes just under 2 hours, then 15 minutes’ walk. The De Morgans and the Sea continues until 28 September 2014.