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By Collection

The founders’ collections of The Bowes Museum are very comprehensive and include paintings, prints and drawings, sculpture, ceramics, furniture and textiles, mostly of continental origin. The 20th century saw additions of local history and archaeology, including a two-headed calf exhibited locally. It should be noted that John Bowes did not deliberately include any family heirlooms of the Bowes family of County Durham, though some pieces may have entered by accident, or by purchase in the 20th century.

Following the administration of the Museum by Durham County Council in 1956, the collections were re-organised administratively into
departments of fine art, to include paintings, sculpture, prints and drawings and some metalwork; ceramics, to include pottery and porcelain, glass, precious metals and some ‘objets de vertu’; furniture, to include clocks and watches, room panelling and some local vernacular furniture; textiles, to include costume, tapestries, embroideries, lace; local history, archaeology and toys. The library and archive are the subject of a separate cataloguing programme.


The tradition of collecting and displaying beautiful objects from the past has well established roots in our culture today. John and Joséphine Bowes, founders of The Bowes Museum, were avid collectors of fine and decorative art. Their collecting ranged from paintings and ceramics to furniture and textiles.

As well as this they also collected objects of archaeological significance. These objects illustrate the founders’ wish to provide visitors to their Museum with access to archaeological specimens from different cultures, and a fascination with understanding how people lived in the past.

The Museum has continued to collect archaeological objects from County Durham since the 1930s. The collection now includes local material ranging from prehistoric flints to medieval pottery and beyond.

The aim of the display in the first of The Streatlam Galleries is to highlight a number of objects to show their decorative and functional qualities; exploring what they can tell us about the past and to inspire visitors, young and old.

Star items in the display include important local objects such as a Roman Head Pot excavated from Piercebridge, a slab of prehistoric rock art known as the Gainford Stone, and Anglo-Saxon metal work from burials in Easington. Other wonders from further afield include a mummified hand from Ancient Egypt and Bronze Age Pottery from Cyprus.

Statement regarding the Deposition of Archaeological Archives at The Bowes Museum

The Bowes Museum is currently reviewing its storage of the county archaeology collections and will not be accepting new archive depositions from November 2017 until further notice. Those wishing to deposit archives are invited to register their archive with The Bowes Museum so that a list of reserves can be held for further reference. We apologise for any inconvenience caused and thank you for your patience while the situation is resolved. 

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Ceramics and Glass

The collections of porcelain and pottery gathered by John and Joséphine are of considerable importance for their size, range and quality. They come from many European countries, and date from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. They are mostly domestic pieces, but offer a comprehensive representation of European ceramics with pieces from almost every known factory.

The largest part of the collection is of French porcelain and faïence. There are many pieces from the royal factory of Sèvres, including a rare teapot of 1758 decorated with peacock feathers on the newly created ‘rose’ or pink ground. There are further fine examples of ‘soft-paste’ or artificial porcelain from Chantilly, Saint Cloud, Vincennes, and Mennecy. The faïence (pottery) comes from Nevers, Rouen and several centres in southern and eastern France. There is an interesting group of faïence patriotique (pottery celebrating political events) made during the French Revolution.
Most of the German porcelain factories are represented, including Meissen, Frankenthal, Ludwigsburg and Nymphenburg. The Bowes’ extended the continental section across the whole of Europe through purchases of modern pieces from the International Exhibitions in Paris in 1867 and London in 1871.
In 1878 John Bowes’ cousin, Susan Davidson, left him her collection of pottery and porcelain which he in turn gave to the Museum. This greatly strengthened the English porcelain, and added many Oriental wares, mostly of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this collection are some fine Chelsea botanical plates, and Chinese armorial export wares. 
The Enid Goldblatt collection of porcelain was acquired in 1988, giving almost complete representation of continental factories, and the Lady Ludlow (1862-1945) collection of porcelain was presented by The Art Fund in 2004, making this one of the strongest collections of English eighteenth century porcelain in Britain.
The 19th century glass collection includes a set of amber table glass, engraved with the Bowes’ coat of arms and horses, attributed to Karl Pföhl, a group of glassware by Salviati of Venice, and a vase, bonbonnière and cabaret set, engraved by Emile Gallé, which are some of his earliest works, commissioned directly by Joséphine Bowes.
The Bowes Museum has been highlighted in Collectors Weekly Hall of Fame which can be seen here.
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Fashion & Textiles

The museum’s textile collection was started by John and Joséphine Bowes, who were pioneers in the field of textile collecting.  They began acquiring 'antique' textiles to furnish their own homes, which led to the formation of one of the largest and most significant European collections in Britain. In buying for the Museum, they chose to represent all textile techniques and all the European centres of production, from the 15th to 19th centuries.

The collection includes a wide range of tapestries, and a collection of needlework seat covers. Other types of European embroidery include ecclesiastical examples from fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, seventeenth century English work and embroidery from the East. The Bowes’ also collected carpets, woven textiles and lace.
Later collections represent more regional themes: a large collection of quilts, part of a larger collection of quilted, patchwork and embroidered bedcovers, and flat-woven carpets, with examples from the nineteenth century carpet weaving industry in Barnard Castle.
The Bowes Museum now houses The Blackborne Lace Collection, containing important study collections and the remaining stock of nineteenth century lace dealers, Anthony and Arthur Blackborne, given to the Museum by their descendants in 2006. It includes many rare pieces including a cavalier’s collar of English needle lace from around 1635, making this one of the largest and most important collections of lace in the world.

In 2007, an important collection of vestments and textiles came from St. Clares Abbey in Darlington. They were donated by the order of the Poor Clares, who had brought them from Rouen, France, where the community ran a school for English Catholic girls, from 1644 to 1793. After the French Revolution the sisters were evicted from their monastery and returned to England. Read More

Fine Art

The collection of paintings at The Bowes Museum presents a comprehensive survey of European art from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

John Bowes bought his first old master painting in 1830 when travelling in Europe. By 1844 he had acquired fifty-seven paintings, mostly from London dealers. Joséphine was a talented amateur painter, especially interested in modern works. In the 1860s she bought work by major French painters such as Courbet, Fantin-Latour, Boudin and Monticelli, the latter being an influence on Van Gogh. Sadly she died just before the opening of the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, and one can only speculate where her taste might have led her. She tried to buy a painting by Manet at auction in 1868, but was outbid. 
Many of the Italian paintings were bought by John Bowes before he met Joséphine. The most important is perhaps A Miracle of the Holy Sacrament by Sassetta, a panel from a predella (a series of narrative panels underneath an altarpiece) from a Sienese altarpiece, dating to 1423-26. Other important works include The Harnessing of the Horses of the Sun by the Venetian artist Tiepolo, a preliminary study piece for decoration in the Archinto Palace, Milan, painted in 1731 that was sadly destroyed in World War II. It shows Apollo (the Sun god) about to ascend his chariot before making his day’s journey across the sky. There are also two large paintings by Canaletto, the famous painter of Venice, showing the festivals of the Sposalizio del Mare, when Venice is married to the sea with a wedding ring cast in the water and the annual Regatta or race of boats.
The Bowes Museum possesses one of the largest collections of Spanish paintings in Britain. Amongst the collection are works such as The Tears of St. Peter by El Greco, Goya’s Portrait of Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés and his Interior of a Prison. The collection of French paintings is also the largest in the country, and includes many fine eighteenth century landscapes, including works by Boucher, Vernet, Robert and Valenciennes. 
The European paintings are complimented by a group of British paintings, including works by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Richard Wilson and Alan Ramsay. Two watercolours by Turner depict Gibside, the estate formerly belonging to the Strathmore family. John Bowes’ father, the 10th Earl of Strathmore, commissioned these works when the artist was working in the North of England.
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On their marriage in 1852, John gave Joséphine the château du Barry at Louveciennes, once the gift of Louis XV to his mistress, the comtesse du Barry. It needed renovation work and they turned to the Parisian firm of Monbro fils âiné almost exclusively for decoration and furnishings. The Bowes’ also had a Paris town house, and in 1855 they moved to a larger one at 7, rue de Berlin. Monbro was similarly commissioned. The area was highly fashionable by the 1860s, and was conveniently near the Gare St. Lazare that had direct services to Louveciennes. 

John and Joséphine’s taste followed contemporary fashion in furnishings, being inspired by the styles of the past. They followed current conventions, with drawing rooms in Louis XV or Louis XVI style with giltwood or kingwood furniture; libraries with bookcases of ‘Boulle’ marquetry of turtleshell and brass set against ebony; and a dining room suite of carved oak. 
The Bowes’ entered fully into the social life of the French Second Empire, the period between 1852 and 1870. They gave supper parties for up to one hundred and fifty guests, loved the theatre and racing, and Joséphine held salons for playwrights, poets and artists.   What survives at The Bowes Museum is an important collection of French Second Empire furniture and furnishings, displayed in room settings that present the personal story of their lives in France.
The furniture acquired by the Bowes’ is mainly European in origin, and has pieces dating from the fifteenth century. The Bowes Museum continues to collect, in particular important pieces of French furniture. These include the exotic chair in the Chinese taste by Georges Jacob, made for the bedchamber of the marquise de Marbeuf in the 1780s, and the Warwick Cabinet, which incorporates an exquisite marquetry panel from the 1680s attributed to the master of French cabinet making André-Charles Boulle. A lady’s writing desk by Martin Carlin, called a bonheur du jour, is an early example of the decoration of furniture with Sèvres porcelain plaques. 
The Bowes Museum also acquires high quality pieces related to the international exhibitions of the nineteenth century, including a mirror by the Barbedienne foundry with figures modelled by the sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse that was exhibited in 1867 in Paris. The recent return of the mirror to view, after an extensive conservation programme, demonstrates The Bowes Museum’s commitment to the care, display and research of its collections.
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Silver & Metals

John and Joséphine Bowes did not attempt to create a comprehensive collection of European silver, but they did try and buy certain key pieces that represented overall styles or techniques, as well as items of a more personal interest, such as a gold mechanical mouse, significant because John called Joséphine ‘Puss’.  The collection was much developed with the reorganisation of the Museum in the 1950s. Today it has a small but fine collection of about five hundred pieces of European silver from about 1600 to 1900, which shows the full range, from a Jacobean spice box to important 19th century pieces, including two racing cups won by John Bowes. The most important items come from the collection of the 6th Marquess of Ormonde, gifted by HM Treasury in 1982, and include a fine group of Regency silver by Paul Storr. The objets d'art include some jewellery and two important 19th century documented jewelled snuff-boxes.  A unique item is the Silver Swan, a life-size silver cased automaton which appears to bend down and catch a fish to the sound of accompanying music.  It is thought to be the one shown by James Cox in his 'museum' in London in 1773.

The Museum has an extensive collection of base metals, pewter, copper and brass, which complement the small collection of silver, and include candlesticks and fireplace fittings. There are ormolu mounts from furniture and room interiors, some allegedly from the royal palaces, acquired after the Siege of Paris in 1871. 

Joséphine’s own jewellery collection was sold after John’s death to pay death duties, but the Museum still has a decorative belt that she is shown wearing in a portrait, emphasising her fashionable small, corseted waist.  Read More