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Bowes Museum – Barnard Castle

Bowes Museum – Barnard Castle
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When Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP’s political aid made his controversial dash to Specsavers in Barnard Castle, it is doubtful he had the time to visit the Bowes Museum.  This was a pity, because it is nearby, on the outskirts of the town. If he had managed the short diversion away from the town centre, he and his family would have been rewarded by a trip round what is arguably Britain’s most unique museum.

It is not simply the collections of treasures within Bowes Museum that is the attraction. The result of a lifetime’s collection by a philanthropist couple, it is it’s venue that first hits the senses, making jaws drop and eyes widen.  The reason?  No matter how well prepared visitors might be, here in the heart of the Durham countryside is a French château.  It was built for John and Joséphine Bowes in order to display a lifetime’s varied collection of European fine and decorative arts.

John Bowes was a wealthy landowner with coal mining and shipping interests – through family connections he was an ancestor of the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.  His French wife Joséphine also inherited wealth. A talented amateur artist, she became a moderately successful actress on the French stage.  From all accounts the relationship was a happy one, despite their inability to produce a family, probably due to John Bowes catching a venereal disease during one of his European journeys.  Even though their individually accrued wealth suggested an introduction into high society, Joséphine’s Bohemian background did not meet the snobbish Victorian standards of the day.  Such was their joint affection that they were able to ignore this snub allowing them to devote their energies by increasing a joint art collection along with planning a suitable home for it.  Together they worked tirelessly, developing their unlikely plan to open a French-style, purpose-built museum in rural Teesdale.  Sadly both died before it was opened in 1892, but were buried in the museum garden.

A collection which John started in his youthful travels around Europe grew steadily, so much so that he had to employ a team of specialist agents to scour major exhibitions.  His working relationship with his agents grew on mutual trust, especially when he accepted their suggestion to move on to the work of up and coming artists.  This seems to have worked and as a result, the galleries at Bowes now hold paintings ranging from 17th century Dutch and Flemish masters to Impressionists and English landscape masters like J.M.W. Turner, a policy continued by recent purchases of modernistic works. One of the results of this policy based on mutual trust was that many paintings now worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, were frequently bought for as little as £10.  Although their purchase price is uncertain, two large paintings by the Venetian artist Canaletto were bought this way.  They are displayed alongside works by el Greco and Francisco Goya, just a selection of the famous artists whose work adorns the walls of Bowes Museum.

Paintings by Joséphine Bowes mingle at Bowes Museum along with those by better known artists, but they can claim to be there by their own quality and not simply due to her influence.  Joséphine worked tirelessly alongside her husband, each keeping to the idea of building a museum in England where anyone could enjoy the results of the Bowes couple’s ambition.  For a time the collection was held in the Château du Barry near Louveciennes west of Paris, the one-time home of the mistress of Louis XV, which John Bowes gave to Joséphine as a wedding gift.  During the Second Revolution (les Miserables is set in this era), an attempt was made to use the château as a store for military equipment. Concerned about the safety of his prized collection, John Bowes managed to pay off the authorities.

A French architect who specialised in designing museums was employed to design the building housing the Bowes collection.  It was planned to build on the site outside Barnard Castle, but unfortunately for the Bowes couple, although comparatively small the site was divided into several small parcels, each owned by a separate person.  John must have had almost bottomless pockets, for after extensive negotiations, he managed to start building his dream museum.

As Joséphine did not relish the thought of crossing the Channel, she kept her visits to England to the bare minimum.  However, she braved the hazardous journey and arrived in Barnard Castle in time to lay the foundation stone, and turning to her husband, said ‘I lay the foundation of our dream.  You John, will lay the cap stone’.

Three stories high and built of locally quarried sandstone, building Bowes Museum, more château than municipal began in 1869 and, costing around £100,000 (equivalent to £9.3 million in today’s money), was ready to receive its valuable collection by 1892.  Far sighted as well as being a philanthropist, John Bowes left a substantial legacy to help with the future running of the museum; but by dying comparatively young, this was something neither of the Bowes could predict, and what is there is for all to enjoy.  In the heart of rural County Durham there now stands a light and airy building housing a well-run museum and art gallery, open for all to enjoy.

Entering through the imposing wrought iron gates, visitors can wander past the well-kept parterre garden, onward to the steps climbing to this unexpected addition to the local countryside.  To the left of the main doors, a heraldic shield with three archer’s bows makes a pun on the name Bowes.  The ground floor is divided, on the right, the reception and shop area, then, to the left two rooms, one for toys enjoyed by children in Victorian times, the other a small area given over to prehistoric items such as an urn found in a neolithic grave, or enigmatic cup and ring stones.  Alongside these curios is a Penny Farthing bicycle and of all things, a two headed calf is without doubt the most bizarre object in the museum.

Decorative art comes to the fore on the first floor.  Not large enough to be domineering, but sufficient to whet the appetite and marvel at the taste and proper use of money by those who brought the collection into being.  Along with Old Masters, Canaletto’s, el Greco and Goya’s work, there was just one that caught my eye.  One of the smallest paintings on display, it is called ‘Head of an Arab in a Fez’ by Augustin Pils (1813-1875). The Arab’s head is turning slightly towards the viewer and something about it made me wonder what he was about to say to me.  The John and Joséphine story galleries to the right of the lift tell the remarkable story of how the couple met, their lives in Paris and why they embarked upon this amazing project.  As Joséphine was the daughter of a clock maker, it is hardly surprising that she showed an interest in the history of time pieces and so, alongside the story of their life’s work, an exhibition of rare and valuable clocks owes its existence to her. Complementing this part of the museum’s story is, on the far left corner of the gallery, an award winning display of fashion and textiles from 1550 to 1970.

Children especially will want to make their way to the top floor, because this is where the famous mechanical silver swan manages to delight.  The symbol of Bowes Museum, it was made by the London-based autonoma designer John Joseph Merlin in 1773. The lifelike clockwork swan catches small fish swimming in realistic water created by glass rods.  Such is the age and delicacy of this machine, it can only be operated on set occasions, advertised daily.  There is also a clockwork mouse nearby which was bought by Joséphine Bowes for John on his 60th birthday. 

A plethora of paintings ranging from Canalettos to a huge Flemish altarpiece fill much of the upper floor.   Alongside are three rooms devoted to ceramics, including Derby pottery – not Crown Derby or even Royal Crown Derby, for these accolades came much later than the eighteenth century beginnings of Derbyshire’s prized ceramics. Musical instruments ranging from harpsicords dating from the late seventeen hundreds, to a piano-harmonium made by Debain of Paris in 1855.  It is possible to hire the Jubilee Room for private functions.

Special events are held in the museum from time to time.  When we visited this year we found an exhibition of locally embroidered quilts on display on the First Floor, celebrating a long standing North Country craft.  Other exhibitions are set from time to time, for example there was an exhibition of the work of an American artist on display prior to our visit.

Whilst the Bowes were unable to see the completion of their life’s work, they do lie side by side in a quiet grave close to the left of the garden.  Here you may also find a memorial to HRH Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, alongside the Durham Light Infantry Memorial.  Children can play in the wooded area on the opposite side of the parterres, where there is also space for a picnic, and maybe enjoy the beauty of a museum in a French château, the life’s work of two far sighted philanthropists.

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