The Story of the Bowes Museum

Looming large in the hills of County Durham there sits an enormous ornate chateau. Perhaps more at home in the dappled sunlight of the Loire Valley than in rural Northern England, the gloriously incongruous building is the Bowes Museum. The 19th century creation of Josephine and John Bowes, built to house a magisterial collection of art, ceramics, textiles, tapestries, clocks and costumes.

Such an exquisite building in such a location does not come into existence without an equally fascinating story. How John and Josephine Bowes created the museum is a story inflected with love, perseverance and idealism.

The Bowes Museum

John Bowes was the illegitimate son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore. As the Earl did not marry Marry Milner, John’s mother, until a mere day before his death, John did not inherit the title.

Although John was a hugely successful horse breeder, businessman and favoured member of parliament, Victorian society disapproved of his illegitimacy and thus he moved to Paris where attitudes to children born out of wedlock were much more lenient. There, he lived in the world of the demi-monde, friends with artists, actors, courtesans and other aristocrats keen to shake off strict social mores. It was during his time Paris that he met Josephine Benoite Coffin-Chevalier, an actress. She became John’s mistress and eventually, in 1852, his wife.

The daughter of a clock-maker, Josephine had a strong enthusiasm for fine craftsmanship and a powerfully intuitive collector’s eye. Once she and John had married, they began to amass a vast collection of fine and decorative arts. The surviving records show that while John financed the majority of the pieces, it was Josephine’s brainchild. She identified, sourced and curated the magnificent collection.

Josephine Bowes

For a while the couple lived in a chateau outside Paris, but eventually John’s loyalty and passion for his native Teesside meant that the couple returned to County Durham in 1860. As John was illegitimate, he would never inherit the Earldom or the accompanying lands, but he was still a major landowner in the region and ran a number of coalmines that employed a vast number of the local population.

John and Josephine felt a strong sense of loyalty and compassion for their tenants and employees. As a result, they decided to build the palatial museum to house their collection and make it available for the local population to visit. Their aim was to enrich and enliven the lives of the workers, exposing them to some of the best European artworks. This was a commonly held ideal by much of Victorian society. Thinkers like John Ruskin and William Morris expounded the idea that culture could lift-up, enhance and refine the lives of everyone no matter their class or occupation.

The tragedy of the Bowes Museum is that neither John not Josephine lived to see the culmination of their ideals. Both of them had died before the museum finally opened in 1892. Though, undoubtedly, they would have been delighted. The day it opened was a true celebration, throngs of people passed through the heavy ornate doors to see the likes of Goya, Monet, and Raphael on the walls. 125 years later, in 2017 the museum stays true to its founding principles, enriching people’s lives through wonderful art.

To celebrate the 125th Anniversary of The Bowes, the museum became the first outside London to use Smartify app, enabling visitors to use a tablet or smartphone to learn about the exhibits as they tour the galleries.

Actors David Napthine and Shelley O’Brien dress up as John and Josephine Bowes.

Even the museum’s founders John and Josephine Bowes got to grips with the app, having time-travelled to the event courtesy of actors David Napthine and Shelley O’Brien!

By Mimi Goodall

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.