East Cliff, Bournemouth, 1897; Merton Russell-Cotes [owner of the Royal Bath Hotel] commissions John Frederick Fogerty to build an Art Nouveau style house in the northeast section of his hotel’s garden (named East Cliff Hall) as a birthday present for his wife. In 1907 they donate the house, its contents and their art collection to Bournemouth, but continued living in a part of the house. After their deaths Bournemouth council re-opened it as the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in 1922.
Much like a vicar living in the vicarage or a lighthouse keeper living in the lighthouse, the position of curator of the museum was offered with the availability of the servants quarters in which to live. Norman Silvester duly moves in to take up the role with his young family. In the coming years he would be responsible for the high-water mark in my grandfather’s life-in-sculpture by including some of his work in Contemporary Sculpture (1948), alongside the likes of Henry Moore and Gilbert Bayes.
Fast-forward to 2009, and his daughter (now 80), recounts growing up in the museum during WWII in a book entitled A Child of the Home Front. Anecdotes of her youth are set against the backdrop of not only war, but living in the museum. Among other things, this amalgamation brings up obscure and intriguing curatorial questions.
What do you do if there’s a chance a bomb could come through the roof? Norman Silvester worked out a system whereby works could be housed in churches and Air Force stations in the nearby countryside. So in solving a problem, he dramatically increased the reach of the collection. He was also able to meaningfully increase said collection by scouring Red Cross shops for pictures donated by those moving away from the coast. A scheme was introduced whereby visitors to exhibitions voted for a single item, which the museum would then purchase. Silvester was also responsible for introducing [maybe the country’s first] picture borrowing scheme.
Joy describes the war in terms of watching dogfights over the bay [from the museum] through a telescope, falling bombs, parts of the roof collapsing, being shot at by fighter planes whilst gardening and bringing D-Day evacuees up off the beach for dinner. Despite the fighting going on around her family, a child’s search for fun knows no bounds as she recounts roller skating down the corridors, playing table-tennis and badminton in the galleries and rummaging around in a loft full of relics.
For me, George Mitchell and Norman Silvester both embody a culture of hands-on, productive pragmatism that may never be commonplace again. Problem solving, collections, entrepreneurialism, making, organising, running a business, building and nurturing relationships are all skills we associate with the curator of today. The more I find out about these two men, the more they seem to do these things as a matter of instinct rather than convenience, fusing their compulsions and interests with their work.
Russell Cotes Museum & Art Gallery interior. Available at: russellcotes.com
Scan (no date) East Cliff Hall [Postcard]. Bournemouth
Shellard, J. (2009) A Child of the Home Front 1939-1945 Christchurch: Natula
Shellard, J. (2017) Interview with Joy Shellard. Interviewed by Luke Mitchell, Aug 2017
Wikipedia (2017) Russell Cotes Museum & Art Gallery (Accessed: Nov 2017)