History of The Bowes Museum
The Bowes Museum is a hidden treasure, a jewel in the heart of beautiful Teesdale. The magnificent building stands proud in the historic market town of Barnard Castle housing internationally significant collections of fine and decorative arts.
Purpose built in the 19th century by John and Joséphine Bowes, the Museum has a wonderful story to tell.
John Bowes was a successful businessman who travelled to Paris in 1847 to explore his interest in the arts. It was here he bought a theatre and met the Parisian actress Joséphine Coffin-Chevallier whom he married in 1852. Joséphine was a talented amateur painter who was interested in a whole range of art forms including paintings, ceramics, furniture and textiles. Soon the couple began to develop the idea of creating a world-class museum back in John’s ancestral home of Teesdale in order to introduce the wider world of art to the local people.
The prospect was daunting; nothing had matched the scale, grandeur or location of this colossal proposal in their lifetime. Plans were meticulously scrutinised and painstakingly formed in order to give the North East a truly magnificent edifice, a home suitably fitting for all the precious treasures which would be contained within it.
The Bowes’ enthusiasm was immeasurable as Joséphine laid the foundation stone in 1869. She said ‘I lay the bottom stone, and you, Mr.Bowes, will lay the top stone’. As the building grew, so did their collection and an astounding 15,000 objects were purchased between 1862 and1874.
Suddenly the project was blighted when Josephine died in 1874. John’s motivation towards their lifelong achievement took an enormous blow and John virtually ceased collecting. Fortunately the building did continue, but John, like his late wife, never saw its completion. He died in 1885 and never did carry out Joséphine’s wish of laying the top stone.
Despite the death of John and Joséphine, momentum for the project had reached such a scale that it continued under the leadership of Trustees and The Bowes Museum was finally opened to the public on 10th June 1892 and attracted nearly 63,000 visitors in its first year.
John and Joséphine filled the museum with treasures, so much so that storage and display space comes with a very high premium. At every turn you can see important and precious works from all over Europe, and each piece has its own story to tell. However it is the 230 year-old Silver Swan that is the best-loved object in the museum. The Silver Swan is an English silver automaton, a unique attraction that was bought by the Bowes in 1872. The life size model is still in working order and is operated at the museum on a daily basis.
The diverse collection spans three floors of the magnificent building and contains items too numerous to list. Whether it is paintings by Canaletto or Goya, porcelain produced at Sèvres, or marquetry attributed to André-Charles Boulle it can all be found at The Bowes Museum, which has received Designated status from the government in recognition of the outstanding collection.
Visitors to The Bowes Museum today can not only learn of John and Josephine’s wonderful story and marvel at the fascinating collections but can also enjoy an exciting programme of exhibitions. Activities in the park and a superb café and shop have helped bring the museum singing and dancing into the 21st century. The magnificent legacy that John and Joséphine left to the people of Teesdale has been cared for to retain its charm and intrigue yet sympathetic developments have made the attraction a popular, vibrant and exciting day out for all.
Next page - John and Josephine Bowes.
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