The Story of the Russell-Cotes' Art Collection
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 a 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. With great regularity, as his interests changed, he 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.
A particular favourite was Flood in the Highlands (BORGM: 01247, dated 1864) by Edwin Landseer. 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 connections to artists and celebrities and saw himself as champion of British artists.
An anthology of Victorian Art?
An important art collection, the Museum’s holdings are mainly British and is often seen as an anthology of Victorian art. Most famous are the works by leading nineteenth century painters, such as Sir William Orchardson, Arthur Hughes, Albert Moore, Edwin Landseer, Edwin Longsden Long and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These range through the anecdotal, sentimental and romantic, to the Orientalist, the Neoclassical and topographical. But the Gallery’s reputation for Victorian painting belies the strength of its Continental paintings, which are of equivalent stature. Most of these have now been researched and published on the National Inventory of Continental European paintings. These pictures introduce us to the history of European art. They include Last Judgment (BORGM: 00841, dated 1597-1616) by Flemish painter, Frans Franken II. With its classicing nude figures, this picture recalls the ancient Medici Venus, the Vatican Läocoon and Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. The mid-twentieth century Lucas Bequest (this collection is a separate Registered Charity within the Museum) of Continental religious and iconographic paintings further enhanced the founding group. Of interest is the Antwept artist, Jan van Balen’s ‘Noah and the Ark’ (BORGM: 2007.94.302, dated1625-1660). Van Balen was a family friend of Brueghel the Elder and Younger, and an associate and occasional collaborator with Peter Paul Rubens.
The collections include other notable Dutch work including ‘Shipping in a Calm’ (BORGM: 02148, dated 1690-1700) by Dutchman Willem Van De Velde the Younger. Indeed the Van de Veldes were the main founders of the English school of maritime painting. A strong maritime theme runs through the collections and includes, for example, work by W.L. Wyllie (1851-1931) and a powerful seascape by John Brett (1831-1902).
Oil paintings predominate, but the collection does contain an interesting variety of work in tempera. This includes early Italian altarpieces such as Madonna with Child with St Catherine and a Donor (Lucas Bequest. BORGM: 2007.94.296, dated 1389) and the High Renaissance panel, Angel of the Annunciation (Lucas Bequest. BORGM: 2007.94.295 , dated 500-1525) by the Sienese Giacomo Pacchiarotti. These early works are complemented by more modern acquisitions, including several works in tempera by locally-based artist, Isabel Florrie Saul. Corfe Castle in the Beauteous Isle of Purbeck (BORGM: 02736, dated 1940) re-creates a medieval scene to illustrate how this dramatic local site might have looked before it was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell. Saul’s miniature ‘Sister E.M. Lloyd SRN’ (BORGM: 01933, dated 1940), is a particularly affecting portrait of a bespectacled and kind-faced nurse.
The depiction of women
Perhaps the most individual feature of Merton’s collecting was his interest in the depiction of women. The collection abounds with representations of women, shown either as chaste, attractive girls or as icons of female sensuality. Womanly pathos and virtue as portrayed in ‘Going To Church; A Dutch Peasant’ by Therese Schwartze (BORGM: 01946, dated 1883) and Luther’s Hymn: ‘Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott’ (BORGM: 00811, c 1895) is contrasted with the smouldering sexuality of Jezebel by J.L. Byam Shaw (BORGM: 01968, dated 1896), the overtly sexual and manacled Andromeda by Arthur Hill (BORGM: 01073, dated 1876) and The Butterfly by L.R. Falero (BORGM: 00777, dated 1893). Today’s audiences often comment on the nudes. In Merton’s day, the nude had been legitimised by the art establishment. Nudes were considered an important part of any contemporary colllection; their explicit nature was ignored. Artists and connoisseurs were generally trusted to approach images of the undraped figure with contemplative composure. Modern commentators on Merton’s collections, however, have suggested an obsession with sado-erotica. Yet the sheer quantity of artwork by women in the Russell-Cotes collection encourages a less sensational interpretation of Merton’s motives. The considerable scale of his investment in the patronage of female artists reveals a more balanced attitude towards women.
The founding collections include an impressive variety of the works by nineteenth century women artists including Louise Jopling, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale and Jane E.B. Hay. The typical Victorian art collector did not patronise women to any noticeable degree, despite the question of female artists being a much-debate topic at the time. Indeed Anna Lea Merritt’s Love Locked Out (1889, Tate Britain) made history when it was purchased for the nation by the Chantrey Fund. No new work by a woman had been deemed worthy of acquisition for the nation before. The fact that the Russell-Cotes’ immediately commissioned a copy from Henry Justice Ford (BORGM: 00033, dated 1889) for themselves demonstrates that their interest in the work of female artists was a genuine one. Indeed Merton’s favourite painting ‘Always Welcome’ (BORGM:00112, dated 1887) was by Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema and depicts a modest and touching domestic scene.
The earliest work by a woman is the charming rendition of a child in a woodland setting by Miss Dewsbury known as ‘Great Grandfather of the Donor as a Child’ (BORGM: 00679 dated 1775-1825). Painted in the early nineteenth century at a time when very few professional female artists were known. A major turn of the century addition was Lucy Kemp-Welch’s Gypsy Horse Drovers (BORGM: 01178, dated 1894), the artist’s first major success. When Merton acquired this painting in 1917, Kemp-Welch was the best-known female artist in the country. A specialist in horse-painting and the depiction of beautiful countryside of the south coast, her ability to characterise animals made her a particularly effective illustrator of the children’s classic novel, Black Beauty (1915). Here we see some local patriotism at work, as the Bournemouth-born artist’s family was known to the Russell-Cotes and other purchases were to follow. More recent acquisitions of work by women continue this legacy including work by Evelyn Dunbar (BORGM:00721), the only British woman artist paid by the government to record the Second World War and Dorothea Sharp, one of England’s finest female artists (BORGM: 01963).
Arguably one of the gems of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Aurora Triumphans BORGM: 00665, 1877-78) by Evelyn De Morgan, a key work in her career. This grand and ambitious work is faithful to De Morgan’s own variation of Pre-Raphaelitism showing of a graceful allegory representing the goddess of dawn overcoming the bonds of night. Ironically, De Morgan’s painting entered the collection as a work by a male artist. Initially it had been passed off as a work by Edward Burne-Jones , as it was signed with his initials and a false date. This is not to suggest that the Russell-Cotes would not have purchased the painting had they known its true authorship. Merton owned De Morgan’s Phospherus and Hesperus (1881), but this is no longer in the collection.
The Russell-Cotes Travelling Art Loan Collection
In addition to the collection accumulated for private and public display in Bournemouth, Merton compiled a separate collection, which was first displayed at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. This eventually became the travelling art loan collection, which he toured this collection to important municipal museums mainly in the North of England. He did this entirely at his own cost, believing that it was the duty of collectors to share their possessions to “confer a benefit upon the public and educate them in the art of their own country” . He supported the critic John Ruskin’s claim that art was one of the most essential elements in the nation’s life. He believed that it provided a means to remedy the ugly and materialistic monotony of industrial society by offering an experience of beauty otherwise inaccessible to the working man. Merton toured the paintings for an impressive thirty-five years before the effort of sustaining this work became too arduous. Two thirds of the collections were sold at Christies in 1905, but the remaining third was retained within the founding collections.
Above: East Cliff Hall
Above: Annie & Merton at home at the Royal Bath Hotel, surrounded by some of their treasured belongings.
Above: the 'original' Mikado's Room