Apart from Sudley House in Liverpool the Russell-Cotes is a rare survivor as the residence of a Victorian private collector, planned and perpetuated as a permanent art museum.
By 1895 the Art Journal acknowledged that ‘Mr Russell-Cotes has devoted considerable time to the bringing together of probably the most notable collection of modern works of Art in the extreme south of England’.
This enthusiasm gathered increasingly strong nationalistic connotations as the century advanced. On patriotic and moral grounds he promoted British art, claiming it was as good as anything produced abroad and therefore deserved the support of other collectors.
The formal art galleries
Galleries I, II and III
Lady Russell-Cotes later financed the addition of three formal art galleries to East Cliff Hall built between 1916 and 1919 (now Galleries I, II and III which are accessed through the Main Hall). This importantly enabled the proper display of many of the larger works of the founding fine-art collection, covenanted on the understanding that they would always be art galleries.
Lady Russell-Cotes made a second gift to the town of the freehold of the site and the art galleries which were formally opened by Princess Beatrice on 1st February 1919. The date is significant, being Merton and Annie's wedding anniversary.
Unfortunately, Annie was unable to attend the formal opening downstairs due to ill health, however, she took tea with Princess Beatrice directly after the formal ceremony in her Boudoir.
The elaborate gold-painted wording above the entrance to Gallery I (viewed from inside the gallery and pictured top right) reads:
"THESE GALLERIES WERE OPENED BY H.R.H. THE PRINCESS BEATRICE 1ST FEBRUARY 1919 BEING THE 59TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE DONORS WEDDING-DAY"
Merton and Annie maintained control over visitors by opening it for only two hours on the first Wednesday of each month on the advance purchase of a ticket. Nonetheless, their long-term intention was for the art galleries to afford a morally improving character and eventually be available to the general public.
In 1926, to carry out their parents' wishes, an additional, and unique-shaped, art gallery - Gallery IV (pictured bottom right) - was opened and given to the town by Herbert Russell-Cotes and Ella Stebbing (nee Russell-Cotes). Gallery IV is entered from Gallery III and when you visit this gallery you can see the inscription plaque on the lower wall directly to the left on entering, which reads:
"THIS ADDITIONAL GALLERY WAS GIVEN TO THE TOWN BY HERBERT RUSSELL COTES. ESQUIRE. AND HIS SISTER MRS EDWARD STEBBING AND WAS OPENED BY THE RT. HON. THE EARL OF MALMESBURY 27TH. JULY 1926"