Posted by: Bob Fisher | July 17, 2013

A French Château in North East England

With Howard Coutts, Curator of the Bowes Museum

To listen to this podcast, click here.

An encounter at the Bowes Museum

Travel can be very rewarding when you discover — through research or through some serendipitous event — a destination or attraction that is a narrative unto itself.

Travel journalism, in my view, is all about storytelling: setting, characters, characterization, dramatic action, themes, metaphors, and universal lessons. Above all, it is about the nature of human beings, their cultures, their strengths, their foibles, and their passions.

A visit to the Bowes Museum in North East England is not just “a day at the museum,” it is very much a behind-the-scenes encounter with two amazing individuals and a very special time and place in which their lives were played out.

John and Joséphine Bowes are the lead characters in this fascinating story; brilliant in their collaborative vocations, enigmatic in some ways, but without a doubt artistically and intellectually courageous. Theirs is a story that is ripe for the kind of multilayered drama (or docudrama — life imitating art or vice versa) which has been produced by enlightened film companies. So if any innovative production houses out there are looking for a great story, let’s talk.

Eccentric, whimsical, or idiosyncratic Bowes?

Well, all of the above actually. And these not-to-be-taken-for-granted qualities are in part what makes this destination within a destination so fascinating and so enriching. The Bowes Museum is, I suppose, the central character in this narrative but it is difficult to differentiate between the personality of the “house” itself and those two individuals who inhabited it and therein left their “character codes.”

In addition to being one of the most unique and coherent art collections I have ever seen, the Bowes is also grand theatre. Born in 1811 to a commoner mother who in all respects — except for that crucial legal and social recognition — was the wife of the 10th Earl of Strathmore, John Bowes was certainly a child of circumstances.

The fact that he was the son of an earl — a lesson in choosing your ancestors well — did not compensate for his being illegitimate. And in the Victorian era with all its layers and undertones of social class, proper behaviour, airs and graces, and double standards, it would appear that John simply had to work harder.

But as the progeny of the upper echelons of English society, he also had the education (Eton, Cambridge) — and without a doubt other economic and networking advantages — all of which would have allowed him to pursue a very adventurous lifestyle. Ironically, it may have been the semi hush-hush circumstances of his birth that set him on a course of alternative thinking. At least, that’s how I would write the screenplay.

John’s story is one of the most content-rich I’ve heard in a long time, and it also has a great deathbed scene. His father married his mother just 16 hours before he died! This was followed by a lot of legal wrangling that eventually resulted in John being recognized as the rightful heir to his father’s extensive Durham estates, but not to the Strathmore title. It’s always that last little slap in the face that can be so infuriating.

And so, although he may have had the ways and means, he was denied full social acceptance. Now this is the stuff of dramatic conflict. What’s a bastard to do? Would the son rage against his fate as a victim of social circumstances, and waste his life in “acting out” the injustice, or would he rise above the whole affair?

Well, John certainly did not become a wastrel. Instead, he became a very successful businessman (coal mines), horse breeder (who better to assess good breeding stock), and a politician-reformer (Liberal Member of Parliament for the constituency of South Durham). Oh, and he also served as Sheriff for County Durham in 1854.

The stage, as they say, was set.

Enter Joséphine

I will venture to say that John Bowes’s greatest accomplishment may have been wooing and winning a certain French actress of some reknown named Joséphine Coffin-Chevallier. A watchmaker’s daughter (it appears she too had self-determination bred in the bone), Joséphine was working as a comedy actress under the stage name of Madame Delorme in the Théatre des Variétés in Paris (a theatre co-owned by John) when the two first met.

Like John, Joséphine was no fool. She had many talents: she was herself a talented amateur painter and had a deep interest in many art forms including paintings, ceramics, furniture, and textiles. She also was “there” in the very early years of the Impressionist movement, and highly supportive of the artists. Theatre and life are all about timing.

Although both John and Joséphine were from very different backgrounds and cultures, they were both free spirits in an artistic sense especially, and shared not only a love of the arts but a conviction that art was something that should be made accessible to everyone, as much as possible.

When they married in 1852, John’s gift to his bride was the château du Barry at Louveciennes, in France. Not an insubstantial property by any means, (Louis XV had previously given it to his mistress, the Comtesse du Barry), it was a first “studio workshop” for the combined talents of these two extraordinary people. They renovated it and restored it to its former glory, and in so doing embarked on their own path to artistic glory.

While they lived the full life of the French Second Empire (1852-1870), they also devoted themselves to the arts and welcomed into their château home European artists and cognoscente from a wide variety of “venues.” However, when the post-French Revolution storm clouds continued to suggest, through subsequent historical events, that there would be a predictable but indeterminate number of years of turmoil in France, John and Joséphine began to make plans. John would eventually sell his interest in the theatre, Joséphine would sell the château and they would move to England with a new, ambitious, grand plan; to create a home for the huge number of works of art they had acquired. But it would not be just any home; it had to be as much a treasure as the objects it would shelter.

And it was, and is.

As I meandered through the Bowes Museum, I tried to imagine exactly why these two people did what they did. Obviously they had disposable income, time, status (finally), and privilege. But there had to be other reasons, deeper motivations. A nagging thought in my head made me want to draw comparisons between John and Joséphine Bowes and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. However, I learned quickly enough that John and Joséphine had none of the empty time on their hands, pathos, and folly of the anemic Duke and Duchess. Any such comparisons were just not on. In fact, John and Joséphine’s legacy is an artistic and public triumph, substantial and enduring. And you can actually visit it in the English market town of Barnard Castle.

Social History and the Bowes Museum

This entire museum is a period piece in that its contents celebrate multiple centuries and schools of art. Initially it also seems quite incongruous — a neo-classical French chateau in an historic market town in North East England — but when you visit the museum and gradually follow the story throughout this magnificent building, it makes a lot of sense — and sensibility. You come to understand why John would have wanted this museum to be built here and why Joséphine, his partner in life and art, also shared his vision.

The museum was conceived and designed by John and Joséphine as precisely that — a museum, not really a home. Once the cornerstone was laid, John and Joséphine’s “project” was alive. The building grew along with the couple’s collection of 15,000 objects acquired between 1862 and 1874. Today the museum and its collections fill three floors of this magnificent building.

And where to begin? Where to end? This was probably the key challenge of John and Joséphine’s passion. For the visitor, however, it is a museum that is extremely well-organized and aficionado-friendly. You never feel rushed, however you will easily lose track of time; the Bowes is a timeless treasure.

As you visit it, you will also find yourself being taken unawares. You may suddenly find yourself standing in front of a piece of art and murmuring, “My goodness. How did that get here?” I had this reaction when El Greco’s deeply moving “The Tears of St. Peter” drifted into my field of vision.

If I had to choose one object that perhaps sums up the continuing presence of John and Joséphine at the Bowes Museum, it would have to be the Silver Swan, a perennial favourite of visitors. This 230-year-old English silver automaton came to the Bowes in 1872. It is a life size model, is still in perfect working order, and is simply delightful. But for me, it seemed to epitomize the gentle art of John and Joséphine, just the kind of collector’s item that would have been acquired, because of its beauty of course, but also because it is quietly and graciously entertaining.

To watch a video of the Silver Swan, click here.

Having called in a (timeless) period piece, I must also draw your attention the Bowes as a very contemporary and interactive arts venue in which all kinds of exhibits continue the visionary purpose that John and Joséphine conceived. The recent “Luxury Goods and the Slave Trade” which commemorated the bicentenary of the British Parliament’s abolition of the transatlantic slave trade is an example of the issue-oriented ethos of the museum. The Museum’s “Exhibitions & Events” link on its website is also ample evidence of why this museum is very much in the mainstream. I suspect John and Joséphine would be pleased.

Not a perfect world

But art does imitate life; and life does not always end well. Sadly John and Joséphine were not to see the full fruition of their dream. Josephine died in 1874. John gave up collecting for the most part and then he too died in 1885 before the Museum was fully completed.

However, they had done their homework well because what they had started all those years ago became, as it turns out, a self-perpetuating artistic phenomenon; their Museum continued to operate as planned under the leadership of the Trustees of the Bowes Museum. The museum opened on June 10, 1892. In the first year of operation almost 63,000 visitors shared in the vision of John and Joséphine Bowes.

And like the Silver Swan, The Bowes Museum continues to delight and enlighten its visitors.

Recommend Resources

Visit the Bowes Museum’s excellent website by clicking here.

I highly recommend The Road to Impressionism: Josephine Bowes and Painting in the Nineteenth Century, by Howard Coutts. The book is available from the Bowes Museum online shop.

The Bowes Museum and Barnard Castle are a very pleasant and short drive from the great cathedral city of Durham. Durham is one of the best travel focal points in the UK.

See also:

Barnard Castle

Visit Teesdale

Tim Marlow on … The Bowes Museum

The above excellent DVD is produced and available for purchase from Seventh Art Productions, or from the Bowes Museum shop. In it, art historian Tim Marlow takes viewers on an in-depth journey into the Bowes Museum.

The Silver Swan on Youtube


The photographic images in this segment are courtesy of the Bowes Museum.


  1. […] A French Château in North East England […]

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