Celebrating 125 years of her Museum

As The Bowes Museum prepares to celebrate its 125th anniversary, a major new exhibition is set to give an insight into the woman, an artist and actress, who was a driving force behind its creation.

Joséphine Bowes – A Woman of Taste and Influence is a salute to an extraordinary and pioneering woman who was far ahead of her time in establishing a museum to house her collection for the public.

During her short life – she was just 48 when she died - this daughter of a French clockmaker assumed a variety of roles including patron of the arts and collector, artist, woman of fashion, socialite, wife, mistress and actress, all of which will be illustrated through key paintings, original archival documents, books, photographs and objects from the Museum collection, some of which will be on display for the first time.

Little is known about Joséphine Coffin-Chevallier’s early life before she joined the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris in 1847, the year she met John Bowes, a landowner, businessman, racehorse breeder/owner and former Liberal MP for South Durham. Taking the stage name Mlle Delorme, Joséphine played many leading roles with commensurate salaries. However, she gave up the stage following her marriage to John as it would have been considered socially unacceptable despite John having purchased the theatre. Though their marriage was an unusual occurrence – as men rarely married their mistresses - it was not unequal, since they were outsiders from formal society; John being illegitimate and Joséphine the daughter of an artisan and an actress.

So how did Joséphine achieve a position of wealth, taste and influence sufficient to establish The Bowes Museum?

Her husband held his own in Parisian society, which was more relaxed than that of England. He had wealth, an upper-class background and education, and was bilingual. Joséphine, with John, hosted dinners, parties and salons where writers, musicians, artists, minor aristocracy and intellectuals could meet, offering her the opportunity to develop her taste, knowledge and appreciation of beauty. Joséphine was fashionable, her love of clothes and jewellery demonstrated by her patronising the leading couturier of the day, Charles Frederick Worth, who dressed her contemporary, Empress Eugénie of France. According to the Revue Critique – a celebrity magazine of the 1860s – ‘The salons of Madame Bowes are counted among the most brilliant in Paris. .’ .

Joséphine also turned her attention to painting in a world where there were few opportunities for women to train and exhibit their work. Despite these drawbacks, she became a remarkably accomplished painter, with her landscapes exhibited at the Paris Salon – the art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts - on four occasions and once at the Royal Academy in London. As ever, she was fully aware of the latest trends.

Joséphine Bowes was credited with having conceived the idea of a museum by John Bowes,” said Joanna Hashagen, exhibition curator with the Museum’s archivist Judith Phillips. “She is believed to be the first woman to establish a public museum and art gallery.  This was a remarkable achievement in an era when married women in England could not even hold property in their own name.”

Her sentiments were echoed by the Museum Director, Adrian Jenkins, who said: “As we celebrate our 125th anniversary, this exhibition offers a wonderful opportunity to look at our founder, Joséphine Bowes, with fresh eyes and to pay tribute to her vision and foresight as we look to the future.”

From the early 1860s the Museum venture became uppermost in Joséphine and John’s lives. Joséphine sold her château at Louveciennes and with the proceeds set about more than a decade of sustained collecting assisted by three dealers in Paris.  Sometimes she purchased items which, while not to her personal taste, she recognised as being worthy of display in her Museum.

To broaden the scope of the collections Joséphine purchased items from international exhibitions. 2017 sees the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Paris Exhibition, at which the couple first viewed the Silver Swan automaton before purchasing it several years later. At that Exhibition, and at the London Exhibition of 1871, she acquired an extraordinary range and quantity of art and craft pieces from most European countries and beyond, as did other significant English museums. She also purchased the work of young French artists including Emile Gallé, whom she met at London’s International Exhibition where she purchased and commissioned work from him.

While Joséphine laid the foundation stone of The Bowes Museum on Saturday 27 November 1869, with a silver and ivory trowel which will be displayed in the exhibition, neither she nor John lived to see it open to the public. Joséphine died in Paris in 1874. The couple’s coffins rest behind the apse of a church, which lies at the edge of the Museum Park.

In the 125th anniversary year of the Museum’s opening the vision of Joséphine Bowes has left a lasting legacy for the education and enjoyment of future generations, which continues to be enhanced by the Museum’s contemporary guardians. 

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Notes to editors: 



·         The Bowes Museum was created over 100 years ago by an extraordinary couple, John and Joséphine Bowes.  Together they built up the greatest private collection of fine and decorative arts in the North of England and constructed a magnificent building to house them in.  The collection contains thousands of objects including furniture, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, textiles and many other items covering an extensive range of European styles and periods. 

·         The Bowes Museum receives a core funding grant from Durham County Council and as a Major Portfolio Museum receives support from Arts Council England.

·         The Bowes Museum has undergone major redevelopment, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, One NorthEast through the County Durham Economic Partnership, English Heritage, Northern Rock Foundation, The Monument Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation, The Foyle Foundation, The European Regional Development Fund, DCMS/Wolfson Museum and Galleries Improvement Fund, Designation Challenge Fund, The Shears Foundation, The Richard and Suzanna Tonks Family Fund at County Durham Foundation, Durham County Council, The Friends of The Bowes Museum, The Headley Trust, Sir James Knott Trust, Catherine Cookson Charitable Trust, Fenwick Ltd, Mercers Charitable Foundation, Welton Foundation.

·         The Bowes Museum is a member of the Discover Durham partnership of attractions. Our commitment is to promote Durham as an exciting and vibrant group travel destination and to provide the travel trade with a professional and knowledgeable service: hotline number 0191 301 8531,



Categories: News

The Bowes Museum grounds are open!

Due to the government announcement on Thursday 17 December, that County Durham is to remain in COVID tier 3 restrictions, The Bowes Museum unfortunately will remain closed to all visitors. However, the grounds remain open to visitors from 10.00 - 4.00 daily, and we are currently hosting a woodland fairy trail, two spring trails and outdoor guided tours are available from 29 March 2021.

As we have already been shut for a number of weeks and there is much uncertainty around possible further restrictions, we have decided to use this period to undertake some work in Café Bowes, alongside performing some much-needed structural repairs to the building, notably to the windows. January and February are usually quieter times for the Museum, often due to severe weather, so we believe that this is the best time to carry out such works with the least amount of disruption to our visitors.

We have therefore decided to remain closed for a period of four weeks following any near-future tier 2 announcement from the government, as this will allow us time to deep clean the Museum prior to reopening our doors once again. We will, of course, keep you updated as the guidelines change.

Your ongoing support during these unprecedented times is hugely appreciated and we very much look forward to welcoming you back into the building as early as possible in 2021.

We hope to be able to offer a few COVID-safe outdoor events over the coming months, about which we shall make further announcements as soon as possible.