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.

Watts the big secret?

Deep in the Surrey countryside just off the North Downs Way is  the village of Compton and a house called Limnerslease, home to the Watts Gallery (Artists Village), the home of renowned Victorian portrait painter, George Frederick Watts and his artist wife, Mary.  After their marriage in 1886, the Watts’ moved to Compton in 1891 into their newly built home, Limnerslease where they were to spend 13 happy years until G F Watts’ death in 1904.  On taking possession, the Watts’ led by Mary, decided to build a gallery to house the work of G F Watts (known to his friends as ‘Signor’); this gallery opened a couple of months after Watts’ death in 1904.  It remains one of only a few galleries dedicated to a single artist and is often hailed as “a national gallery in the heart of a village”.   On her death in 1938, the house and contents were sold but the gallery remained open under the auspices as a Trust.  It wasn’t until 2016 that the site reopened in its current form.

Entrance to the Watts Gallery in Compton
lead door opposite the main entrance to Watts Gallery

Their old home is now small museum housing works by Watts, as well as a few artefacts belonging to the artist including and easel, paint storage carousel and pigment paint.  In an adjacent gallery room there are on display 3 of the four rescued relief frieze panels made by Mary Watts for the old Cambridge Military Hospital Chapel in Aldershot. (The fourth is in storage). Alongside these are various items made by Mary and the Compton Pottery which she started for local people and other personal items such as diaries and notebooks. 

Mary Watts was a remarkable woman and artist in her own right, attending the Slade School of Art (at the same time as the painter Evelyn De Morgan) where she studied sculpture.  She was a firm believer that anyone, given the right opportunity could create something beautiful, and that everyone should have a craft through which they could express themselves creatively.  She designed and oversaw the construction of the Watts Mortuary Chapel, which was a gift to the people of Compton to afford them a place where they could lay out their dead prior to burial so that others could ‘pay their respects’.  She designed, made and instructed others in the making of the terracotta tiles that cover the outside of the building and was responsible for the design and making of the internal relief work.

terracotta bust of Clytie by G F Watts outside the Watts Gallery
winter view of Clytie by G F Watts

In addition to showing artwork by G F Watts, the gallery holds four temporary exhibitions a year by artists connected to, or contemporary to Watts.  Connections are not always obvious which makes for surprising and interesting exhibitions. 

the Watts Contemporary Gallery

During 2019 temporary exhibitions have been about the moon, called moonscapes this exhibition celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landings through artworks and artefacts by artists contemporary to Watts’ lifetime.  The summer and early autumn showcased the work of the Orientalist painter J F Lewis, showing his keen eye for minute detail, outstanding skills as a draughtsman and colourist.  The late autumn and winter offering was devoted to the portrait painter and WW1 war artist, William Orpen.

Daughters of Theia by Mary Branson, created as part of the community programme connected to the Moonscapes exhibition in 2019

The Watts Gallery Artists Village offers a very pleasant day out in beautiful, tranquil countryside with the opportunity to see some incredible art by one of the greatest painters of his time.  The site also boasts an excellent gift shop selling interesting, high quality gift items and cards and an excellent tearoom.  Coffee and cake definitely recommended!  Above the visitor reception and shop is a contemporary gallery space which hosts rotating exhibitions by selected artists and groups relating to the Watts programme or the wider Artists Village.  There is plenty of free parking on the site.  A varied and extensive programme of community-based activities runs all years round, together with several ‘special event’ weekends.

Physical Energy by G F Watts
Alfred, Lord Tennyson by G F Watts

The Artists Village is open 7 days a week from 10.30am to 5.00pm.

From humble origins

Having a ‘spare’ afternoon is always a luxury but sometimes it seems a shame to waste it doing nothing, so with this in mind I went to visit the National Trust property, Oakhurst Cottage in the village of Hambledon in Surrey.

Originally built in the 16th century most likely as a workman’s cottage, this tiny home saw some remodelling during the 19th century and since then time has largely stood still.  We met our guide (visits are by pre-booked guided tour only) in the garden of the cottage and were then treated to an interesting introduction in the adjacent store barn.  One of the most interesting things about this building, is that it is built in the same way as the main cottage as a large square timber frame with in filled panels of brick.  The original cottage was one large building with a central fireplace and smokehole in the roof, but during the 19th century this was altered and a small extension was added, the fireplace was moved to the side and a chimney built on.  The biggest change was the addition of an upper floor with two distinct rooms for sleeping.

sitting room fireplace
sitting room dining table
second bedroom with hand knitted blanket coverlet and hand made rag rugs
all mod cons, the outside ‘convenience’

The National Trust acquired the cottage as a legacy from two sisters who owned several properties in the village in the 1980’s together with its sitting tenants, who were living in the house without the benefit of mains drainage, electricity, central heating and hot and cold running water.  The Trust have dressed the cottage to look as it most likely would have done during the 19th century, sparsely furnished and with many handmade items of furniture, rugs and coverlets.

Victorian hand made ‘paper pieced’ quilt bed cover

At the same time as our visit a young family was visiting also, and I take my hat off to the two young boys (probably aged 5 and 7) who were for the most part very well behaved, for what must have been for them,  pretty boring.  In the scullery the guide talked at length about it being the women’s domain as it housed the bread oven, the washing tub and copper.  The mother of the family group seemed to take quite violent exception to this idea, which is a bizarre notion, as this is exactly how it would have been over 150 years ago for women.  It was very funny hearing her protestations about equality and her views on the subjugation of women in the past!  The poor tour guide (an elderly gentleman) was quite bemused by this “strong independent woman”. 

pantry and food store

It is interesting how many younger people see the past through a 21st century lens, constantly calling out perceived injustice and malfeasance.  I find this fascinating, it seems to me that there are many who are only interested in a sanitised version of history that fits with their own experience and ideals.  This is plainly ridiculous and it is the duty of organisations such as the NT to present the past as accurately as possible, while being mindful of current sensibilities.  However, no heritage organisations should be afraid of tackling ‘difficult’ issues from the past.  These cannot be airbrushed from history, it is so important that younger people know about past problems and what was done, to avoid them happening again.

Outside Oakhurst Cottage is a small garden filled with flowers and vegetables.  There are some interesting architectural features on the building, the oak timber frame beams being the most obvious, while at the back of the property is a nice example on the rear wall of bricks laid in the Rat Trap pattern.  This is a method that can save up to 30% on the number of bricks needed to cover a 1m square and up to 50% on the amount of mortar required.

Rat Trap brick pattern
rear cottage wall showing rat trap brick pattern and tin bath

The cottage is tucked away at the far edge of the cricket green in Hambledon village, which in reality is little more than a hamlet (although there is a village shop that also has a small café serving excellent food), it is open for 4 days a week, Wednesdays and Thursday and Saturdays and Sundays between April and October for pre-booked guided tours only. Also available at the cottage are some albums and books showing the cottage at different stages in its life including a book of prints of watercolours by the well-known Victorian painter, Helen Allingham who painted the cottage. It seems that it is this painting on which the Trust have modelled the cottage we see today, and which includes the replacement of the windows from rectangular panes to diamond lattice panes.

Image result for oakhurst cottage surrey by helen allingham
Oakhurst Cottage, Hambledon Allingham
from the book “The Cottage Homes of England by Helen Allingham and Stewart Dick

Oakhurst Cottage is tiny gem, like an oversized dolls house frozen in time. Definitely worth a visit.