The South Coast Taj Mahal by Dennis Hamley.

 One of the best things about being freelance or retired or preferably both, is to be able to say at a moment's notice, 'Sod it, let's drop everything and go away.' Some would say that a blog about your holidays does smack of reversion to childhood and I have to say there's something in that. But, depending on what you do with them, they can lead to experiences worth having, worth communicating and worth musing on afterwards, especially if you are a writer or artist. The sudden, spur of the moment day might be even more significant than the long-planned holiday.

So it was for us just twelve days ago. The sun shone out of a deep blue sky and we said, 'Let's go out for the day.' So we caught a bus to the station, bought day return tickets, got on a comfortable and reasonably fast  Cross Country Voyager DMU and were in Bournemouth by mid-morning.

We'd done this before. Lunch on the pier, a long walk along the sands, a paddle, an explore of somewhere nice (the first time we did it, we went to the original Christchurch and I have to say it looked a whole lot better than Kay's faraway home city does right now), something to eat, an evening train back and home by 10 o'clock: what could be better?.

This time we had a purpose. I'd never been to the Russell-Cotes museum. Kay had and wanted to go again. So we went, and the experience has kept me thinking ever since. This, by the way, is not going to be a Trip Advisor review, though if it were I'd be giving five stars. It's more an account of an adventure. 

The East Cliff Funicular. The best way in.

'For many years I had it in mind that some day I would build a house after my own heart, as an offering of love and affection to my wife.'

So said Sir Merton Russell-Cotes in 1901 when the house was finished. Yes, this combined  house and museum really is the South Coast Taj Mahal. All right, Merton and Annie were stinking rich. But they used their wealth in a good way. Though they still lived in the house, they transformed it as a museum and art gallery. In 1908 it  was put in trust for the people of Bournemouth and, by extension, to the rest of the world. A good use of wealth.  Bankers, please note. You can't spend all those bonuses on yourselves.

Victorian exuberance

Architecturally, Merton wanted a combination of Italian and Scottish Baronial. I think he got it. Round every corner, room after room, there's something magnificent, strange, quirky, heart-stopping. A great staircase -

Main Hall Stairs

A Portal to wonders

- and an incredible conservatory -


A mini-Kew without all those plants getting in the way

- and much, much more - far too much to itemise here.

All right, you'll say, it sounds like a nice place, but where's the adventure? Well, as writers, we worry a lot about setting, whether it's exotic, solid, liminal or even absent altogether. But how much does it matter as long as there's a sense of place, a 'felt life' as Henry James said, to convey? The best description of this house, for all its solidity, visual power and tactility, is 'liminal'. I love that word. We walked round house and galleries with one foot in reality, the other in fantasy. Anything, we felt, was possible. Yes, a 'felt life' is there all right. But it's a life slightly beyond the imagination . And yet, because I think the ghosts of Merton and Annie still stalk the galleries and rooms and their friends Henry Irving and Lily Langtry (the loo she used is still there, the beautifully tiled walls still shining) follow them round, it's a life which, if we could share it, would be good. 

It might be a good setting for a novel. But of what sort? Merton and Annie were great friends with Sir Henry Irving. Was he a regular visitor? And if he was,did Bram Stoker, his theatre manager, ever come here as well? He'd have loved it if he had: it might have been as potent a trigger for him as Whitby was. When I've finally finished The Second Man from Porlock, I might think about all this and see if anything could be done with it because it might be the seedbed of another novel about a literary conundrum..

What makes the Russell-Cotes different from other museums and galleries is its personal idiosyncracy. Merton and Annie were great travellers and brought back souvenirs of everywhere they went. There's the Mikado Room, full of Japanese artefacts, the Moorish Alcove with echoes of the Alhambra, and the Green Room, full of trophies from Scandinavia and Russia. These collections resonate as well. At the very least, a 'Night at the Museum' story could come out of them but also something more serious might be possible.

Such collections as this do make me feel slightly uneasy. There's a New Zealand room full of Maori artefacts. Best of all is a large and superbly made model of a Maori canoe. Kay said it ought to go back to the Maoris. I said nothing but resolved never to show her the Elgin Marbles because the guilt feelings would be too great. Should the Maori canoe be here? Ought it really to be in Te Papa in Wellington? What currency bought it? Beads and trinkets? Is its presence here a result of Victorian colonial presumption or a gift from a grateful people? Is this a moral problem which could be resolved in narrative?

And then, of course, there is the Art collection. There's a lot of fascinating pottery but most important are the paintings. Merton was a lifelong canny collector, mainly of British paintings. He didn't collect to make a museum: he bought work that he liked and sold work he found he didn't like as much as he thought he would when he bought it. He deliberately bought the work of painters who were on the way down, like Frith, Landseer and Longden Long, assuming, usually correctly, that one day they'd go up again. There's a lot from the Pre-Raphaelites, including Rossetti. There's Italian and Dutch work.  Merton's taste, individual though mainly traditional, was pretty sure.

But one of the strengths of this collection amassed by this Victorian philanthropist and son of an industrialist is the prominence given to women artists.  Times were changing and he knew it - and if he didn't, he had a strong-minded wife to tell him. The proportion of female to male artists in the galleries is, of course, still perilously small. There weren't as many of them and they had to fight hard to be taken seriously. Painting is a public art. Hitherto the private arts - poetry, the novel - seemed the only ones open to women. But here are two represented in these galleries who bucked the trend.

Fisherwomen at Scheveningen by Mrs Edith Hume - print

Fisherwomen at Scheveningen
Mrs Edith Hume

Edith Hume was a remarkable woman. Born Edith Dunn in 1840, she was among the first art students to be accepted on equal terms into a College of Art - Heatherley's in London. With her were male students who went on to achieve eminence, Russell Flint for example. This was a forward-looking college which encouraged its students to follow their own styles. She was among the first in a movement which would gain strength - as pioneering in its way as Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson entering medical school. And her paintings of Dutch fisherfolk are terrific.  

Phyllis by Louise Jopling - print

Louise Jopling

Louise Jopling was probably not the earliest victim of gender discrimination in art but certainly among the most well-known, when she put in for a portrait commission worth £150 but lost out to Millais who was, in the end, paid £1000. But she had talent which couldn't be hidden, even though she was a thorn in the side of the Establishment with her suffragism and support of feminine causes.

Just two of the several remarkable women artists that Merton and Annie gave space to. It made me admire this couple even more. And I even wondered if, after her Learning not to be First, about Christina Rossetti, Kathleen might consider a book on women like these called Determined not to be Second.

Eventually we came out of the house, slightly shell-shocked, and entered the gardens. Pleasant but not, I have to say, special, except for one thing. They had a grotto here, so we went straight to it.

Figure on a landscape

As anyone who has read Spirit of the Place will know, I love grottos. In fact I regard myself as something of a grotto connoisseur. But I was so disappointed with this one that I didn't even bother to take a photograph. I regret that now. But if I were a landscape gardener, which by any stretch of the imagination I never could be, I'd volunteer to go down there and build them one to rival Nicholas Fowler's because both house and garden deserve it.

So our visit was over. A quick walk to Harry Ramsden's, fish and chips and a pint of Harry's Tall Tale Ale and then an evening train back. A lovely day, a great experience and a lot of food for thought.  What more can anyone want?


JO said…
I love unexpected days out. But if you want collections to make you feel uneasy - have you been to the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford? With goodies, including shrunken heads that give small children the heebie-jeebies, from all over the world.
Dennis Hamley said…
Jo, I haunt the Pitt-Rivers, as, I think, do many other strange entities. And yes, fascinating though it is, it throws up far more moral problems than Russell Cotes's modest collection does. How did Pitt-Rivers get those heads? What do the ancestors think about it?
Jan Needle said…
I have a factoid about Scheveningen. Apparently (APPARENTLY) the Dutch secret services used the name as a tester for supposed German spies they apprehended during the war who claimed to be Dutch. Simple test: say that word. If you got it wrong you were shot. Quick, simple, almost Nazi in its purity. Happy days...
Dennis Hamley said…
First, it's been kindly reported to me by Kay, working some miles away, that I've forgotten which century I live in AGAIN. For 2001 and 2008, please, I beg you, read 1901 and 1908. If she's been at home, it wouldn't have happened.
Jan, I don't think that's just a factoid. I think it's true. I heard it in a radio play in 1943 (got the century right that time!) In it, we won in the end, a true case of jumping the gun, as it were
Susan Price said…
Dates now corrected, for posterity, Dennis.
Lydia Bennet said…
lovely post Dennis! I think a Langtry-haunted loo would be a great story! As Oscar Wilde and Whistler hung out at her place and Oscar had been engaged to the lass who married Bram Stoker (Florence Balcombe?)it's no wonder the 'felt life' is there. Btw have you been to Snowshill Manor, cotswolds, the amazing house and grounds and wonderfully bonkers collections and designs of eccentric Charles Wade? As for guilt re collections, certain cultural artefacts should arguably be returned, but we can't take too far judging people of the past by today's standards - most of the great houses were built on money raised by working-class miners, labourers etc in awful conditions but pulling the buildings down would not help anyone, or feeling guilty for enjoying them. IMO of course!
Kathleen Jones said…
Lovely post Dennis and I love your suggested title for my next opus 'Determined not to be Second'! I, too, am fascinated by the Pitt-Rivers - they have a huge collection of Haida artefacts, which, though feeling collective guilt, I am grateful for - otherwise I'd have to go to Canada to look at them, which I can't afford.
Dennis Hamley said…
Thanks Sue You're a good woman! Yes, Val, We have been to Snowshill. Weird. Even though I'm congenitally untidy, it made even me feel a bit uncomfortable. You couldn't spend a night among the exhibits there. There's nowhere you can lie down straight. Go on then, Kathleen, write it. I dare you!
CallyPhillips said…
Very enjoyable post, Dennis though reading it was something of a busman's holiday for me as I'm in the final throes of putting together a 'virtual tour' of Castle Douglas which starts this Wednesday... couldn't get to the place to do a real one so now EVERYONE here can come and take 'the fact meets fiction' tour of Castle Douglas. It'll cost you nothing but your time and it won't matter if it's pissing with rain! Your post gives me some hope that people ARE indeed interested in such things. We'll see...
JO said…
Dennis, I don't know the story behind the Pitt-Rivers - but there must be one ... (now there's an idea ...) But it does raise huge ethical questions.
julia jones said…
fascinating. I was going to say reading your account almost as good as having the excursion myself but, truthfully, probably better as you and Kay bring so much more to what you see

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