About the Museum
In 1901 Merton Russell-Cotes gave his wife Annie a dream house on a cliff-top, overlooking the sea. It was an extraordinary, extravagant birthday present – lavish, splendid, and with a touch of fantasy. They filled this exotic seaside villa with beautiful objects from their travels across the world and lined the walls with a remarkable collection of British art, creating a unique atmosphere in a most dramatic setting. A home, an art gallery, and a museum. Then they sealed it in time and gave it to the future.
From 1916 to 1919, Annie paid for the building of three additional art galleries to East Cliff Hall. Galleries I, II and III, which are accessed through the Main Hall, enabled many of the largest works of the founding fine art collection to be displayed.
Annie made a second gift to the town – the freehold of the site and the art galleries. These were formally opened by Princess Beatrice on 1 February 1919 – Merton and Annie’s 59th wedding anniversary.
Unfortunately, Annie was unable to attend the formal opening due to ill health, but she did, however, have tea with Princess Beatrice after the ceremony in her Boudoir. The galleries were opened to visitors, who had purchased advance tickets, for two hours on the first Wednesday of each month.
In 1926, in order to fulfil their parents’ wishes, an additional, and unique-shaped art gallery – Gallery IV – was opened and given to the town by Herbert Russell-Cotes and Ella Stebbing (née Russell-Cotes). It was originally planned to be built at the same time as the other Galleries and was to include an observatory. By 1926, however, hanging space was at a premium and there may have been objections from neighbours about the proposed observatory.
The Garden of East Cliff Hall was conceived as a private space for Merton, Annie and their family. Merton describes how he resolved to create “a tropical garden” out of the wild sand dunes and “a beauty spot that any English garden lover would desire.”
The garden was originally filled with marble and bronze sculptures, as well as a secluded summerhouse. The Victorian stone grotto and fountain still survive, as does the Japanese garden with gold-fish ponds, bridges and fountain.