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9 things you didn’t know about The Bowes Museum…

Royal connections and celeb visits, scandalous beginnings and trailblazing exhibitions – The Bowes Museum is a bit of a dark horse.

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 28.10.2021

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For one, The Bowes Museum represents the shared passion that brought a husband and wife together. An art dealer of illegitimate birth, John Bowes left the British Victorian society in which he felt unwelcome for France, where he met actress and vaudeville performer Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevallier – who was, herself, passionate about the arts.

But the museum also represents the Bowes’ love for the people of the North East. On their return to John’s family home of Streatlam Castle in England – in order to flee the Siege of Paris – the pair decided to commission this purpose-built art gallery for the sole purpose of creating a space where the local coal miners and farmers could encounter fine art and improve their cultural understanding.


‘I lay the bottom stone and you, Mr Bowes, will lay the top stone.’ Those were the words Joséphine spoke at the ceremony to mark the laying of the foundation stone in 1869, when she was already seriously ill. Reportedly, she was only able to ceremoniously touch the stone with a silver trowel – a trowel we can still see in the museum’s collections today.

The Bowes Museum opened in 1892, but John had also died seven years earlier. The couple are interred side by side at Gibside, the family home of John’s grandmother.


John Bowes was the son of John Lyon-Bowes – 10th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne – and his mistress (and commoner) Mary Millner.

John’s uncle on his father’s side – one Thomas Lyon-Bowes – is the great-great-great-grandfather of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

In fact, it was because John’s parents weren’t married at the time of his birth that he didn’t inherit the Earldom himself, the title instead passing to his Uncle Thomas. So, indirectly – or certainly accidentally – John influenced the line of succession significantly.


Sure, The Bowes Museum is home to an internationally important collection of European art – including masterpieces by the likes of El Greco, Van Dyck, Canaletto and Goya – as well as an award-winning fashion and textiles gallery. But the craftsmanship of the building itself isn’t to be sniffed at either.

With an architectural collaboration which mirrored the North East and Parisian partnership of its husband-and-wife founders, The Bowes Museum was the brainchild of French architect Jules Pellechet and John Edward Watson of Newcastle and was fashioned in the elaborate style of the French chateau.

The Bowes Museum took 30 years to complete, was reputed to have cost £100,000 to build (roughly equivalent to £9.3 million by today’s standards) and was the first architectural structure to be built using the metric scale in England.


Joséphine was a keen (and very talented) painter herself and her work was once exhibited at the Royal Academy, which was an unusual achievement for a woman at the time. The Bowes Museum’s collections include a number of her paintings, including one of The Chateau Du Barry.

The chateau – which was the former home of one of King Louis XV’s mistresses – was a wedding present from John and was where the couple first lived after they were married. It was also where they began their collection together; a collection that would ultimately relocate to Barnard Castle. But in order to fund the creation of The Bowes Museum, Joséphine decided to sell the chateau in the 1860s.

Look closely at the painting of her former home – some say that’s her in the foreground, in a possible early selfie by a true pioneer.


It’s rare that you can go into an art gallery or museum and see the actual clothes people used to wear hundreds of years ago. But not at The Bowes Museum.

Their award-winning Fashion & Textiles Gallery is highly regarded the world over, due to its groundbreaking method of costume display – where garments are mounted on invisible mannequins, allowing us to view them inside and out from 360 degrees. Spectacularly lit, the items in this gallery provide an incomparable visual timeline of fashion through the ages.

But it’s not all about centuries gone by here, either. The Bowes Museum has some stunning examples of modern haute couture by designers such as Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, as well as images from the undisputed king of catwalk photography, Chris Moore, which offer a rare insight into the modern fashion world and the rise of the supermodel.

They also hosted the internationally acclaimed Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal exhibition, which was the first exhibition in the UK to present a dedicated display of the French fashion designer’s life and work.


The Bowes Museum’s bread and butter is its Paintings Gallery, which features an extensive collection of European art spanning from the 15th to the 19th centuries, in a variety of schools and styles unparalleled anywhere in the UK outside of the national collections in London and Edinburgh.

At the time of their deaths, John and Joséphine have bestowed a combined 15,000 pieces of art to the museum. Although they didn’t always like the paintings they collected!

Take The Tears of St Peter by El Greco as an example. John wasn’t keen on the piece at all and El Greco as an artist wasn’t much appreciated by his peers at the time. But John’s dealer, Gogué, persuaded him to buy the piece on the grounds that El Greco’s work would one day be popular.

El Greco finally found his fame long after his death, in the 20th century – when he became credited as the original precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism.


Don’t think one visit here will be enough. As well as their enviable permanent collections, The Bowes Museum also plays host to a rolling programme of touring exhibitions for artists and brands both near and far.

Their 2020 exhibition Norman Cornish: The Definitive Collection was the first major retrospective of the ex-coal miner’s work and marked a century since his birth. It also drew a record-high number of visitors to the museum in a decade.

Up next? Regeneration, a response to the Covid pandemic by award-winning Northern artist Martin Kinnear, which opens on 22nd January 2022. Spoiler alert – it features a 16-foot high animation inspired by High Force waterfall in Teesdale.


The Bowes Museum has been known to host many a famous visitor in its 129-year history. Damien Hirst opened his exhibition Print Maker here; YSL co-founder Pierre Bergé opened the Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal exhibition in the Fashion Gallery; and the museum’s majestic Silver Swan automaton always has royalty flocking to see it.


Piqued your interest yet? Find out plenty more about The Bowes Museum and plan your visit on their website, or follow them on Facebook and Instagram

 The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham DL12 8NP

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