Before his marriage, John Bowes collected pictures in a small way, using such distinguished dealers as William Buchanan, Samuel Woodburn, and Edward Solly, whose private collection forms the basis of the picture gallery in Berlin. Bowes bought paintings attributed to Guido Reni and Domenichino, as well as a fine Solario of ‘St.Jerome’, which shows his debt to his master Leonardo da Vinci. The most outstanding picture that he bought is a small narrative or ‘predella’ panel attributed to Fra Angelico that he bought from the Duke of Lucca’s sale at Christie’s in 1840 on the advice of Solly. It is today recognised as part of the Arte del Lana altarpiece of 1423 by the Sienese artist Sassetta, and is one of the oldest European objects in The Bowes Museum.
With his marriage to Joséphine in 1852, John Bowes came into daily contact with modern French taste, which favoured 17th and 18th century European artists, such as Boucher and Tiepolo. The Bowes’ greatest coup came in 1869, when the collection of Spanish paintings of the Conte de Quinto were on the Paris art market. John and Joséphine acquired what is possibly the largest collection of Spanish pictures in Britain, even though they did not always like the painters concerned. ‘De ceux deux maîtres, j’en ai vendu plusieurs’ - wrote their dealer Gogué – ‘quoique ce ne soit pas des tipes que vous aimez comme artistes. Je crois que vous pourriez en prendre un de chaque comme collection’ (‘I know you don’t like these two masters, but I think you ought to buy one of each for your collection’). The Bowes' thus became the proud owners of an El Greco and two Goyas, artists rarely found outside the national collections in Britain.
Joséphine also bought works by contemporary artists, and it is here that her dealings form a valuable commentary on the state of the Paris contemporary art market of the 1860s. The Bowes attended all the Salons of the times, buying a copy each of the catalogue, and Joséphine herself was a successful exhibitor on a number of occasions. They attended the famous Salon des Réfusés in 1863, and must have seen the now famous pictures by Manet of ‘Le Bain’ [rechristened by him ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’] and Whistler’s ‘White Girl’. In 1865 they bought a painting by Monticelli, who, as their dealer told them had a good future (‘qui a de l’avenir’). They had bought a still-life by Fantin-Latour in 1864 from their dealer Madame Lepautre, just a couple of months after it was painted, and a Courbet from the dealer Basset in 1865. Four works by Boudin were bought at a sale in 1868. Their collection is a remarkable cross–survey of advanced painting just before the Impressionists.
They also ‘scored’ in the acquisitions of decorative arts such as ceramics and textiles, which are numerous, of good quality, and often represent collecting fields largely unexplored till then. These include French faience, Paris porcelain, numerous Sèvres cups and saucers, and also an extensive collection of tapestries and needlework seat covers. In 1872 they bought the most famous exhibit, the silver swan, an 18th century life-size silver automaton that had been exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. It is their most expensive purchase (5000 francs).
In the true 19th century manner, they went to the great exhibitions of the time, where what were called ‘the industrial arts’ were on display. They acquired important groups of objects from the London Exhibition of 1862 and the Paris exhibition of 1867. They also bought items direct from the porcelain factories of Meissen and Berlin on a visit to Germany in 1868. In 1871, during the Franco-Prussian war, the Bowes were sheltering in London and bought a huge range of ceramics from London Exhibition of 1871. It was here that Joséphine met a young china and glass dealer called Emile Gallé, and commissioned an engraved glass cabaret set from him. Gallé is of course now famous as the leading maker of Art Nouveau glass twenty years later, and this was one of his first known commissions. His letters survive in the museum archive and contain some of his earliest known thoughts on the relationship between art and botany.