A Seaside Fantasy House

It’s been a few years since I was last at the Russell-Cotes Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth, Dorset and a visit yesterday reminded me of how incredible this place is.  The house was built in 1901 as a home for Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes, and was as much a luxurious residence as it was a showcase for their huge collection of art and artefacts.  On the death of Merton in 1921 the house and its entire contents were given to the people of the Borough of Bournemouth.  This amazing fantasy house is now a grade II listed building housing a world renowned collection of art and artefacts from across the globe.

hand painted Peacock frieze

The house itself has a dramatic fantasy exterior, it’s terraces, canopies and turrets a combination of Scottish Baronial, French Chateaux and Italian Renaissance styling, and yet the famous exterior is actually the back of the house, the front and original main entrance is far more understated.

Russell-Cotes Gallery

Once inside, each room is opulently decorated with hand painted wall friezes and ceilings complimenting bespoke printed wallpapers and tiling.  Each room has a different style influence which reflects the art and artefacts within it.  Where else could you find a Moorish fountain and pond in the main hallway?  Above this is a 3 panelled stained glass skylight depicting the daily cycle of the sun from sun rise to sunset surrounded by the signs of the zodiac.  The skylight currently in place is a copy of the original which was destroyed by bombing in 1941.  The Russell-Cotes’ made use of every available space to display their vast collection, including the visitors toilet.  Today this room is the Ladies toilet, and it has to be said is probably the most opulent ‘convenience’ I have ever seen!

Moorish fountain in the main hallway at the Russell-Cotes Gallery
The Ladies Toilet at the Russell-Cotes gallery

In 1916 Annie commissioned a local architect to design a gallery space in which their collection could be seen by the public after their deaths, and galleries 1 – 3 were officially opened by Princess Beatrice (Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter) in 1919.  Due to planning issues it was not until 1926 that a simpler version of gallery IV was completed.

Crocodile Lyre, one of the many artefacts collected by the Russell-Cotes’ on their travels

Merton was a champion of the ‘modern’ British School of Art and was not  a fan of the Old Masters.  Much of his collection features the work of major 19th century artists including the Pre Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Evelyn De Morgan, John Brett and the 20th century painter Harold Williamson.

Hand painted bird ceiling

Galleries 3 and 4 are often used to show temporary exhibitions and on the day of my visit the exhibition was of ceramics by William De Morgan, called Sublime Symmetry.

Sublime Symmetry is a small travelling exhibition featuring ceramics by William De Morgan and exploring the idea that his designs were heavily influenced by mathematics.  William’s father, Augustus, was a professor of mathematics at University College London and his brother George, together with a friend formed the London Mathematical Society, with Augustus being duly elected as its first president.  William was not a member of the LMS, but he did study mathematics for a year while a student at UCL.  While there he learned about Euclid, trigonometry, logarithms and algebra which were all standard fare for college-level study at the time.  Several studies of De Morgan have revealed that he was an ‘accomplished engineer’ and that he had ‘considerable mathematical skill’. 

Symmetrical patterns are evident in much of William’s work.  Indeed perfect symmetry has long been associated with traditional notions of beauty.  In mathematics symmetry is the transformation of a shape by reflecting, rotating or scaling it without changing other properties.  In art the eye is drawn to the central ine or point, through the rest of the design and it is this order and structure that makes the design aesthetically pleasing.  William was greatly influenced by Persian ceramics and it was while working on a commission to install Lord Leighton’s collection of Arab tiles he became entranced by Iznik[i] designs.   An example of this on display is the Floral Ogee Panel.  Here De Morgan has created a particularly intricate design by decorating the wide blue border of the ogee shape with a repeated floral pattern.

Floral Ogee tiles

The exhibition is spread through the two galleries which are, in truth, a little too large for it.  There is a lot of open space with mostly bare walls save for a few text panels which describe ideas about mathematical concepts of shape, symmetry, design and pattern as well as some information about De Morgan and mathematics.  My favourite item on display was the ‘Bulbous vase with Persian Décor’ in the small display cabinet in the far rear corner of gallery 4.  A small but visually stunning vase with a repeating floral design and deep, sparkling blue and blue-green glazes.

Bulbous vase by William De Morgan

Other notable display items for me were the Peacock Dish and the Bee Plate, both large charger style plates  in a vibrant red lustre glaze.  The Peacock Plate shows a bird displaying its tail to one side which is balanced by its body and head and two opposing lazy S scrolls.  The Bee Plate shows three bees with interlocking wings in triangular formation surrounded by stylised leaf and bud motifs.

Peacock Plate in red lustre
Bee Plate in red lustre by William De Morgan

This exhibition has one of the best children’s activity areas  I have seen.  Billed as “William De Morgan’s Delightful Design Den”  it features a puzzle table with sliding tiles for children to recreate the Floral Ogee Pattern and a rotating cube puzzle which requires the child to match the different design elements to make up a repeating pattern.  A small table is also provided for children to draw and colour their own designs based on what they have seen.  At the time of visiting, several youngsters were making use of it.

Children’s activity area at the Sublime Symmetry exhibition in the Russell-Cotes Gallery

This small, but interesting exhibition has a perfect venue at the Russell-Cotes Museum with De Morgan’s pattern and design influences being evident in many of the rooms throughout the house.

The Russell-Cotes Gallery and Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays 10am to 5pm.  Admission fees apply.

Sublime Symmetry is open until 2nd February 2020.

[i] Iznik is a small town in Turkey which became established in the late 15th century as a centre for the production of brilliant blue, green and red ceramics with formalised floral designs, geometrically structured where symmetry is a key underpinning device.