By Jeremy Miles
When Victorian art collector Sir Merton Russell-Cotes bequeathed his lavish cliff-top home, East Cliff Hall, and its huge collection of paintings and sculptures to the people of Bournemouth he created an intriguing problem. He was a fearfully hard act to follow. The collection that he and his wife Annie had spent decades acquiring was idiosyncratic and wide-ranging. Magnificent paintings shared wall space with those that were considered minor and mediocre, but somehow it all worked. It was a collection that reflected Sir Merton’s flamboyant style and generosity of spirit.
But it also highlighted the fact that he had been a man of his age, born into the era of Empire. By the time of his death in 1921 the contemporary art world had moved on. Post First World War sensibilities were open to radical change and though public taste, as ever, lagged a few years behind the artistic vanguard, eventually the inevitable happened and Victorian art fell seriously out of fashion.
However Bournemouth was sitting on what was effectively a priceless time-capsule and the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum collection is now recognised as one of the finest complete Victorian collections in the world. That it is housed in its original home is a major bonus. Unfortunately none of this helped answer the problem of how to add to and develop the collection. The answer is found in Meeting Modernism: 20th Century Art in the Russell-Cotes Collection which runs at the museum’s galleries until 24th April.