If you are unfamiliar, the Bowes Museum is set in a wonderful town in the North East of England, Barnard Castle, Teesdale. This purpose-built art gallery, was founded in 1892 and located in a beautiful area, lined with bright flowers, luscious green hills, walled garden and stunning ornate architectures. When you first peer upon the Bowes Museum, it almost seems strangely out of place, designed in a beautiful French Style every aspect of this building is grand, a definite ‘wow’ factor. In all weather this museum is picturesque.
The Bowes Museum is a heritage site that I was first introduced to as a child on school visits. I remember visiting and thinking how grand and luxurious everything was, from the beautiful staircase to the four poster beds and delicate porcelain. These fixings and objects spoke of a world I had never experienced before and is where I imagined lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses to live in huge mansions like this. The setting was so far removed from my life that I found every aspect of this building fascinating, and it made me question how a home could become a museum. I remember slowly walking around the galleries and looking at the ceilings, marvelling at everything that was on display. I vividly remember walking around the painting galleries sitting on the benches, observing and drawing everything I could see from fruits to flowers in bright purples and forest greens. These galleries would take me into a different world, and taught me the appreciation of fine paintings, historical clothing and why collecting was important in the eighteenth century.
Purpose built in 1869 and finally completed in 1892, the building became a live-in museum while John and Josephine travelled Europe to collect their objects, soon the collection grew and became lusciously filled with collectables from around the world. John and Joséphine Bowes had a huge appreciation for the Fine and Decorative Arts and collected many objects such as paintings, one of a kind fine china’s and delicate porcelain. It is known that John Bowes travelled between France and England, where his interest in collecting Fine and Decorative Arts began, and where in Paris he met Josephine, then an actress and talented amateur painter. It was upon their marriage in 1852 that John and Josephine began exploring the world to collect art to introduce to John’s home town, Teesdale. With the collection so incredible extensive amassing to 15,000 objects, it is known that most of their collection was founded between 1862 - 1874. Sadly, throughout the collecting and building stages of their gallery, Josephine passed away, and this tragic loss caused John to cease collecting. Sadly, John himself passed away one year later, never seeing the completion of his work. Both individuals were incredibly passionate collectors of beautiful and rare objects. It always saddens me to read that neither of them lived to see their completed work, and what a treasure it has become.
Through the beautiful story of John and Josephine Bowes, one of the most memorable pieces in the collection must be the eighteenth-century silver swan. Positioned front and centre in a beautiful gallery, it is to be admired throughout the day with a special performance commencing daily at 2pm. Made by John Joseph Merlin, a famous inventor of the time, the Silver Swan dates from 1773 and was bought by John Bowes in 1872 for £200. This automaton made of silver, is outlined with delicate silver leaves, flowers and tiny fish, which the swan catches in its performance. The Swan is controlled by a clock work mechanism, which is wound to reveal a delicate chime and is where the Swan begins its sequence looking for fish to eat.
Without a doubt, this is one of the most memorable pieces within the collection and without fail I see this 40-second performance every time I visit, honestly it is incredibly outstanding! But this isn’t the only special object within the collection at the Bowes Museum. As you’ve walked through the galleries, and admired the beautifully delicate and detailed paintings you will come across rooms with four poster beds, textiles with stunning embroideries and realise how rich and important John and Joséphine were to society and this became evident in the items they collected and in-fact lived with.
There are so many highlights to this museum, one being its location. It is so easy to get lost in the story of this home that you forget that it is in fact a museum. You get lost in the work that Mr. & Mrs. Bowes put together, the travels they must have endured and find yourself appreciating a painting, an item of clothing, and the grand architectures. I have been visiting the Bowes Museum since I was a child, and upon each visit I discover something new. Make sure this museum is on your list to see.