The Bowes Museum > Collection > Explore The Collection > 25 Outstanding Treasures

1. The Silver Swan

1. The Silver Swan

A mechanical automaton, made in about 1773 in the workshop of James Cox of London, a silversmith and dealer. The automaton was recorded as being displayed in Cox’s Mechanical Museum in 1774. In a performance accompanied by music, lasting about 30 seconds, the Swan appears to preen itself, then bend its neck to take a fish out of the water. The automaton comprises three clockwork mechanisms, all working simultaneously to produce the remarkable movement. So lifelike is the result produced by the head and neck mechanism, that it is thought that the celebrated eighteenth century inventor, John Joseph Merlin, was responsible for this part, while apprentices and ordinary craftsmen worked on the rest of the automaton. The Swan was exhibited at the Paris International Exhibition in 1867 and bought by John Bowes in 1872 for his Museum. Read More

2. The Tears of St Peter by Domenikos Theotokopoulos called El Greco (1541-1614), Spanish, oil on canvas, signed, 1580s

This painting was purchased by John Bowes in 1869 from the collection of the Conde de Quinto, on the advice of his dealer, Gogué. Bowes was not keen on the artist and El Greco’s work was not much appreciated at the time; however Gogué persuaded him on the grounds that his works would one day be popular and it was therefore an astute acquisition.

El Greco painted several versions of this subject, among which this painting is thought to be the first.

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3. Prison Scene by Francisco José de Goya (1746-1828).

This painting is a restrained but effective indictment of man, a theme to which Goya repeatedly returned. The prison interior is densely but softly painted. In its delicacy, the sketchily painted group of prisoners is like a tinted drawing.

The featureless, velvety darkness of the prison creates an impression of boundlessness, of infinity. It is punctuated only by the light which comes through the semi-circular arch to illuminate the prisoners.

The prisoners are in a truly pitiable condition. They are deprived of all human dignity. Dressed in only a few rags and constrained by heavy shackles, they droop like broken men. One may well imagine that they are forgotten and will be left to languish and to rot. The one in the centre, facing us, is like a secular ‘Ecce Homo’. Goya wishes to touch us with compassion. The message is universal but in this instance Goya is specifically concerned with the conditions of the prisons of his times which were often as barbarous as the worst of crimes.

Some think this painting is one of the small cabinet pictures painted by Goya in 1793-4 immediately after his almost fatal illness which left him completely deaf. Others think it was painted at some time between 1808 and 1820 during the overlapping periods of the Spanish War of Independence (1808-14) and the printing of Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ (1810-20).

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4. Mechanical Mouse, possibly Swiss, c. 1818

Measuring a mere 11 cm in length, including its tail, this mouse is made of gold with seed pearl decorations all over its body and garnet eyes. Wound up by a miniature key, it scuttles about with lifelike movements, darting, changing direction and stopping at intervals as if listening. It was purchased by Joséphine Bowes in London in 1871. She had fled her home in Paris with her husband, to escape the Siege of Paris. A bill in The Bowes Museum Archive records the purchase from the jeweller, P. Albert. A letter from John Bowes recalls his private name for her, “Puss”, suggesting that the mouse may have held a special significance for them. Read More

5. A Miracle of the Eucharist, by Stefano di Giovanni called Sassetta (1392-1450), Italian (Siena), c. 1425-6.

The scene shows a lay brother of the Carmelite order being struck dead as he receives the Holy Communion; the suggestion is that his death has occurred due to his sacrilegious doubting of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, causing the Devil to come down and claim his soul.

Sassetta’s mastery is displayed in his successful depiction of the horror of this moment, as shown by the shocked onlookers; he has also created a sense of architectural space in a small painting, with a skilful use of perspective.

The painting is one of a group created for the base of an altarpiece, known as a predella; the companion paintings to this one are now scattered throughout the world, in Melbourne, Rome, Budapest and Siena.

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6. Monk Hesleden Screen

'The Harrowing of Hell' is an incomplete section of a 15th century carved altar screen showing scenes of 'The Passion and Death of Christ'. It is divided into 3 sections; the judgment and flogging of Jesus; Mary standing beneath His cross at the crucifixion; Christ going through the jaws of Hell, with Satan standing over it, holding the keys. From a church (now demolished) at Monk Hesleden. It is approximately 58cm in height.

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7. Cabinet for botanical specimens, English, c.1780

Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore and grandmother of John Bowes, was a keen collector of plants; this cabinet was made to house her collection. When the front side cover is lowered, the interior reveals drawers to store plant specimens, with a tilting panel on which to inspect the specimens or use as a writing stand. A drainage system allowed the plants to be kept watered.

It is veneered in burr elm and kingwood on oak, with decoration in boxwood. The decoration is Neo-classical in style, with typical swags and bows along with cameos featuring heads thought to be of Roman Emperors and literary figures.

It was purchased with the aid of grants from the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of The Bowes Museum in 1961.

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8. Sappho, Ancient Greek writer of lyric poetry

Silver figure of Sappho by James Pradier, signed and dated 1848, from the Simonette foundry.  Sappho with downcast head is represented leaning with her left palm on a Doric columnar plinth, upon which an upturned bowl of foliage, with Greek key design rests, with an unwound scroll which is inscribed in Greek with the last stanza of her 'Ode to Aphrodite'.  At the foot of the plinth is a ewer with key design and drapery, and a pair of doves whose feet are bound together with a ribbon.  In her left hand Sappho carries a draped lyre, whose base is the shell of a tortoise.  The figure is draped and sandalled, wears her hair in a band, has a necklace and three bracelets.  The base of the statuette is square, with moulded sides, and has a bow front at Sappho's feet. Read More

9. Portrait of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, c.1690 Francesco Trevisani (1656-1746)

Francesco Trevisani was a Venetian artist who went to Rome in 1681, and was taken up by a clique of highly educated Cardinals who were intent on developing taste in the Papal capital. The most prominent became his leading patron, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (1667-1740), the great nephew of Pope Alexander VII and a leading light of the Academy of Arcadia, an organisation devoted to the reform of painting, theatre, poetry and music. His circle included the violinist Arcangelo Corelli, and the composers Scarlatti and Handel . This portrait shows him as a most worldly patron, wearing a biretta and dressed in a red silk cardinal’s robe, resplendent in lace flounces. His hand rests on a gilt and marble table and on it is a brass bell and silver inkstand, all decorated with his arms of a double-headed eagle. His music library survives in the Henry Watson Music Library, Manchester. Read More

10. Marquetry panel, attributed to André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732), French, c. 1690.

This panel, made from ebony and exotic woods on an oak carcass, is of exceptional quality. It was acquired by the 1st Earl of Warwick who brought it to England and had it made into a cabinet; this work is attributed to Mayhew and Ince, London cabinet makers.

It was purchased with the aid of the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund, The Art Fund, the Pilgrim Trust and the Friends of The Bowes Museum in 1979.

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11. Head pot

Human faces are often found in Roman pottery, some of these containers held ashes from cremations.  This example is fairly unusual as the pot is quite large and detailed.  It was found in Piercebridge and has been partially reconstructed.

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12. Man’s Cloak Band, English, c.1635, linen cutwork and geometric lace, Blackborne Collection

This style of separate collar was known as a falling or cloak band in the seventeenth century, as it spread widely over the shoulders. It is best known from the male portraits of Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) and is said to have belonged to Charles I.
Blackborne and Company, lace dealers, were instrumental in piecing together the history of high quality, handmade lace, and owned an impressive collection which illustrates designs and techniques from 1500 to the 1890s. The Blackborne Collection was one of the most extensive and important private lace collections in the world. In 2006, the descendants of the Blackborne family presented the entire collection to the Bowes Museum. Consisting of over 6,000 items, it is being researched and catalogued with the aid of a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. Read More

13. Eugénie’s bodice

This bodice belonged to Empress Eugénie and consists of shadow printed silk with about eight colours and shades of white, blue and pink flowers.  The bodice is lined and boned throughout, three each side of the front, underarm, and at the waist at the back, with a tight inner belt, hook front, high covered shoulders and a low square cut front.  It has wide straight three quarter length sleeves, trimmed with puffs of matching printed ribbon around the neck, centre front and sleeves, with Chantilly blonde lace on the neck and sleeves.  The garment is all hand sewn with cord piped in deep blue around its lower edge.  It is a very pointed bodice at the front and neck.  Read More

14. The Bucintoro returning to the Molo on Ascension Day after the Ceremony of Wedding the Adriatic, c. 1730s, oil on canvas, Italian Regatta on the Grand Canal, c. 1730s, oil on canvas, Italian Both by Giovanni Antonio Canal called Canaletto (1697-1768)

These two paintings are amongst Canalettos’s largest and finest works. They show public events on the Canal; the first shows the Doge’s barge, the Bucintoro or Bucintaur, after the imaginary wedding to the sea, in which the Doge tosses a wedding ring into the Adriatic Sea. In the second, Canaletto depicts a boat race with the Rialto bridge in the background. Some of the boatmen wear the blue and white colours of the noble Pisano family. On the left is a floating stand from which prizes were distributed, with four different coloured flags at the base. The red flag was plucked by the winning boatman.

The paintings first came to The Bowes Museum for an exhibition in 1972; they were then in the ownership of a Northumberland family. A public appeal to raise money to purchase them realised the required sum and the Museum acquired them with the aid of grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund, the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of The Bowes Museum in 1982.

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15. Panelling from Chesterfield House, pine and plaster, English, c. 1740s

This panelling is part of a room which was originally known as the Ante- Room or ‘French room’ at Chesterfield House, London. It represents one of the earliest examples of the Rococo style in England.

It was commissioned by the 4th Earl of Chesterfield for his London house. As an enthusiast of French taste he very probably wanted to imitate the new Rococo style which had its origins in France in the 1720s. His designer was Isaac Ware, who was both an exponent of the Rococo style as well as a critic of it. However, with this panelling he created a restrained though accomplished example of the style and avoided much of the excessive exuberance of the Rococo for which it was famed on the Continent. The decorative carving may have been the work of the celebrated French carver Jean Antoine Cuenot, known to have been working in London at this time.

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16. Bonheur du jour, or lady’s writing table by Martin Carlin (d. 1785), French.

Veneered in tulipwood on oak and mounted with Sèvres porcelain plaques and gilt bronze, this is the earliest of eleven writing tables made to the same design between 1765 and 1774 by Martin Carlin. Read More

17. Chelsea porcelain clock.

This clock is in soft-paste porcelain, of cube-shape with four raised rococo feet, moulded with pierced scrolls on the corners and pierced rococo side panels. The inset enamelled clock face is mounted with a metal surround and door (possibly gilt bronze), with a convex clear glass front, the rear with a metal (possibly brass) plate.  The top has a high dome with a group above of a nymph and putto.  The four top corners have applied putti, playing musical instruments and seated on cloud-type mounds. This is one item in the spectacular Lady Ludlow Collection of English porcelain gifted to The Bowes Museum by The Art Fund in 2003.

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18. Fashion Doll

This exquisite doll is made of carved and painted wood with glass eyes, jointed arms and legs and beautifully painted features. Her hair is dressed in a 'tight style', and has a decoration of lace and silk. She is wearing a striped silk salmon pink sacque back dress, with matching petticoat and two under petticoats in a woven diaper pattern made of white cotton.  She also has on a white linen chemise, white cotton knitted stockings, pink silk garters and pink silk shoes. Her dress is heavily trimmed at the front to the waist and she is wearing heavy pearls round her neck. Read More

19. Keith Vaughan Textile and Cartoon

Adam is a unique working preparatory cartoon or textile design by Keith Vaughan on drawing paper inscribed with explanatory weaving notes by Morton, the director of Edinburgh Weavers. The work was commissioned by Morton for the creation of the Adam Jacquard woven textile of cotton and rayon, which received an award from the Design Council in 1958. The Adam Jacquard woven textile is a key piece within The Bowes Museum’s Design Award Collection, which was formed between 1957 and 1962.
The cartoon was bought with the aid of the Art Fund, the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of The Bowes Museum in 2010. Read More

20. Joséphine’s bed

Joséphine's bed is carved out of gilt wood with a separate canopy, and is known as 'lit à la duchesse'.  It is upholstered in silk brocade woven with red and white flowers on a blue ground, in wide strips separated by a twisted ribbon motif. It is an exemplary example of French second Empire style. Read More

21. Emile Gallé Cabaret Set (verre d’eau) Engraved glass, 1871-72

Emile Gallé brought his love of plants and flowers to the family business, creating and selling fine china. He had just joined his father,Charles Gallé, in the family firm after studying botany at Weimar, when Joséphine Bowes met him at the London International Exhibition of 1871. She commissioned this night-time liqueur set or verre d’eau from him, probably in emulation of one that his father supplied to the Empress Eugénie, comprising liqueur bottle, waterflask, sugar bowl and cover, tray and two glasses and saucers. They are engraved with Gallé’s choice of flowers, plants and insects, intertwined with lace, which he detailed in some charming letters to Joséphine Bowes. This is more or less his first known commission; twenty years later he was to become famous at the master of French Art Nouveau, in which form, function, and material are all intertwined into one sinuous decorative glass object that rivals forms and colours of the plants outside in the garden. Read More

22. Snow Scene in the South of France by Joséphine Bowes (1825-1874), c. 1868

Joséphine Bowes, wife of John Bowes and co-founder of The Bowes Museum, was a highly competent amateur painter. She painted in the Realist style and her work was accepted on several occasions for exhibition in the Paris Salon. Read More

23. Fruit and Flowers (Fruits et Fleurs) by Henri Fantin-Latour, (1836-1904)

The furniture surface recedes on the left side and on it are arranged a dark purple flower vase and a wicker basket from which spills apples and pears. The picture is signed and dated on the left-hand edge of the table:  Fantin - 1866. Read More

24. Mirror Dated 1867 Albert Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824-87) and Ferdinand Barbedienne (1810-92)

Paris was the leading centre for luxury arts in the 19th century, many of which were shown at a series of International Exhibitions [1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, 1900], following the lead of the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. However, French exhibits tended to demonstrate skills in design and quality craftsmanship, rather than industrial mass production, and were much admired by visitors from abroad. This extravagant mirror – more a piece of sculpture than a useful object – was modelled by the great sculptor Albert Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824-87), the master of the more famous Auguste Rodin (1840 –1917) [who was in his studio when it was made] and cast by the foundry of Ferdinand Barbedienne (1810-92), whose work was bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It was shown at the Paris International Exhibition of 1867, where it was sold to the fabulously rich English collector, Wiliam Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley, famous for his collection of paintings, French art and furniture, now sadly dispersed.
It was purchased with the aid of grants from the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Fund Grant, the Art Fund, the Friends of The Bowes Museum and the Esmée Fairbairn Charitable Trust in 1992. Read More

25. Jacques Gruber (1870-1935) Stained glass panels [3] in triptych form depicting a mountainous landscape. Etched signature in stylized lettering at the bottom left of right hand panel: J Gruber Generously presented by The Friends of The Bowes Museum in 2011 in commemoration of their 60th anniversary.

Jacques Gruber was an Art Nouveau designer trained in Paris who returned to his home town of Nancy to contribute to the work of the Ecole de Nancy. Some of his finest works in stained glass and furniture survive in the museum there. During the First World War he returned to Paris and became a prominent exponent of angular Art Deco stained glass, some of which was shown in the Paris International Exhibition of 1925. This led to an exhibition in New York, where he was perceived as being as modern and abstract as Picasso. These panels show him revisiting the Alsace Lorraine landscape for subject matter, but interpreting it in the modernist idiom of the 1920s. It is one of the few French decorative works of art of this period in a British public collection. Read More