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~ Hubby's Choice~
During our holiday in the north east of England in summer 2012, my husband decided that for once he would work on the itinerary and plan the attractions we'd visit. On the third day of our trip he announced that we were going to the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle not far from Durham. I was a bit confused. The UK is full of cheap or free museums and we have National Trust membership so I couldn't work out why he wanted to go to a museum I'd never heard of which was quite expensive. Apparently he'd seen it on the Antiques Road Show or something similar. The rules were that he did the planning so I shut up and went along with the suggestion.
The museum opens at 10 am and we arrived about 5 minutes later which meant we were able to park on the long curved driveway rather than having to hunt down a space in the car park behind the museum. My first impression was 'miniature Versailles' which is hard to explain because I've never actually been to Versailles, but as it turned out the French influence was absolutely correct. The building looks a bit incongruous but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It stands on an elevated plot with steps in front leading down to manicured lawns and neat topiary bushes. Some of the lawns slope steeply and we marvelled at the gardener attempting to cut the grassy banks with a Flymo on a rope. We approached the building through the gardens, heading up the steps and in through the entrance in the centre of the front of the building. Full details of how to reach the museum by every form of transport known to mankind and from every possible direction can be found on the website at www.bowesmuseum.org.uk
The museum is open every day of the year with the exceptions of Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day. Opening hours are from 10 am to 5 pm and admission for adults is £9 a head or £8 for 'concessions' which I assume means OAPs although it's not spelled out on the website. Disability access is good and 'carers' get in for free with a paying disabled ticket buyer. I admit I gulped a bit when I saw the prices but if you are not a member of the National Trust or similar schemes, you can frequently be charged a lot more to see a lot less. There are reductions for students and children get in for free. My guess is that many a school party has passed through with their worksheets and clipboards in hand. Six month passes are available for £12 and holders of the Great British Heritage Pass and the National Art Pass can get in for free.
Photography is allowed but there's a fee - from memory £5 per camera - and you have to fill in a sheet promising that your pictures are for private, non-commercial use. I have to admit that having forked out for my camera fee, I got really miffed at all the people snapping away with their mobile phones who hadn't paid for the privilege.
~John and Josephine~
John Bowes was the illegitimate son of John Lyon-Bowes, 10th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne and his mistress, local girl Mary Milner. Lyon-Bowes married Mary on his death bed but his son John was unable to inherit the title which passed to another branch of the family tree which included the late Queen Mother. If you recall, she was a Bowes-Lyon before marriage. Robbed of his title and shunned in polite company for his illegitimacy, John set off to Paris where he invested unwisely (financially speaking) in a theatre but found the love of his life, a young actress called Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevalier. The two married and set up home in France and became collectors and patrons of the decorative arts, building up a massive collection of everything from paintings, to ceramics, furniture and musical instruments. Unable to have children, they threw all their energies into their collecting. The Bowes Museum was their vision of a home for that collection which they could share with the nation, but sadly Joséphine died within 3 years of the foundation stone being laid and her husband carried on without her, working on the museum as his tribute to the woman he loved. Even he didn't see the opening of their grand work, dying in 1885 seven years before the museum finally opened in 1892. Fortunately the couple left not only a gigantic collection of goodies, but also a large bequest to fund the future of the museum.
The museum is enormous and the collection is very varied. It doesn't start and end with the collection of John and Josephine and many newer items have been added to the museum and some whole sections post date the couple. There are some rooms that left me thinking "Surely nobody needs quite that many porcelain birds or crinoline ladies" whilst others made me gasp with envy.
There are twenty galleries in total, spread over three floors. Some parts of the museum are permanent collections whilst other rooms host temporary exhibitions. At the time of our visit, the main temporary exhibition was on 'Our Sporting Life' and focused on sporting achievements of local men and women. These included Olympic and World Cup items and included some fascinating memorabilia from uniforms worn at opening ceremonies to old ticket stubs and photographs of famous medallists.
There's also a contrast between the galleries which date to the time of the Bowes and the newer collections, most notably the Fashion and Textile Gallery which displays clothes from different eras. A fabulous collection of designer hats by Stephen Jones was also on show including some very bizarre and controversial designs. There was also a section about a wedding dress with displays about the woman who designed it, Lucy Duff-Gordon, who was a Titanic survivor, the bride who wore it and her aviator husband.
My personal highlights of the ground floor included a fantastic palanquin (a sort of oriental sedan chair), a double headed and extra legged stuffed cow, and a scale model of Charles Dickens' house. Up the grand, sweeping staircase, the first floor has many enormous rooms with high ceilings, stuffed with antique furniture, not all of it to my taste. Many of the rooms are very opulent and a little too 'French' for me. The clothing gallery was also on this floor and I could have spent hours in there and I'm not even that interested in clothes.
The star of the top floor is the silver swan but before we come to that, there's plenty more to see. The main galleries of paintings are on this floor and there are some spectacular examples of great artists from the 15th to 19th century. John Bowes had a taste for Italian artists before he met his wife and most of the Italian paintings are from that period. They include two Canalettos which will probably be the ones people will recognise at first sight (although they're rather flat and the perspective looks a bit 'off' on one of them). Spanish artsts include El Greco and of course Josephine had a taste for French art and the French collection is allegedly one of the biggest in the UK. British artists include Gainsborough, Reynolds and Turner. To be honest, I like my paintings rather more recent than the 19th century but there were some beauties to see. My personal favourites were many of the older religious paintings and a beautiful Alma-Tadema painting of a girl lying on a tiger skin next to a pool.
~The Swan - the museum's 'cygnet-ure' piece~
Back to the famous silver swan which is the most popular piece in the museum. In the past I'm told that you could get the curators and guards to fire up the swan any time you wanted to but these days it 'performs' to a strict schedule with a daily showing at 2 pm. This is an automaton in which a silver swan, life size or slightly bigger, sits on a 'pool' of turning glass rods. As the very quick performance starts, the swan swings its neck back and forth before dipping down to pick up a silver fish from the 'water'. It's not going to tax anyone's observation skills too much to spot that the fish in the swan's mouth has come out of the mouth rather than off the pool but at the time it was made, it must have seemed absolutely astonishing and even now it's still a thing of great beauty. We arrived early for the performance and there must have been sixty to seventy people gathered round. The security guard who wound up the clockwork mechanism warned us that it wouldn't last long and said he hoped we wouldn't be too disappointed. Nobody was. As a crowd we cooed more than kids at a firework party but it was with a certain element of irony. In an era where you can play thousands of games on your phone and pretend you're robbing cars and shooting people, I can imagine that kids must wonder what the fuss is about a bendy-necked bird.
We visit a lot of stately homes and were interested to contrast such places with the Bowes Museum. One thing that isn't initially apparent, and which we didn't realise until we'd sat for a few minutes and watched a video about the history of the place, is that the building was never a home; it was designed and built with the sole intention of displaying the collection of Mr and Mrs Bowes. What this means is that the many rooms which appear to be set up for inhabitants are entirely staged. Nobody ever sat on those chairs in that room or played the piano or did their needlepoint next to the open fire. Nobody ever woke in one of the high canopied beds and wandered to the window to look at the view. The whole thing is posed. What it also means is that there are none of the 'functional' rooms you'd expect in a grand house and which I find so fascinating - no kitchens, no bathrooms and no servants quarters. There's no 'below stairs' because nobody ever brought hot water bottles to the bedrooms or ironed the master's copy of The Times.
~Tea shop tourism~
Any fans of the great British art of 'teashop-tourism' will be glad to know that the Bowes Museum has a cafe on the ground floor and it's very nice. I'll be honest with you that it's not cheap but it is good value. We ordered two bowls of smoked haddock chowder which looked a bit pricey at £7.50 a bowl but was so thick, so tasty and such a knock-out brilliant dish that it was worth every penny and more. I was also impressed that when we didn't order drinks the waiter asked if he could bring us a jug of water.
Other ground floor facilities include some very modern and funky toilets and a rather nice shop selling all sorts of arty stuff, much of it unrelated to what's in the actual museum, but that's not unusual. We were at the museum from 10am until about 2.30pm and I didn't feel that we'd 'rushed' our visit. Yes, it's quite expensive to get in, but the variety of exhibitions should mean that there's something to appeal to most visitors, although I doubt anyone will love everything.
What moved me more than any of the exhibitions was the story of John and Josephine Bowes, their love of the decorative arts and their determination to leave a legacy to the nation. It's a magnificent testimony to their love for each other and the arts and their generosity to the people of the area where John grew up, it's a magnificent gift.
The Bowes Museum is really quite astonishing - a replica French Chateau, purpose built as a museum in the nineteenth century, set in the middle of the rural north east of England. It is certainly a surreal experience, to be driving through a small market town in Teesdale, and suddenly to be confronted with such a palatial structure housing one of the most important British collections of European fine art outside of London. Definitely not what you would expect in your average provincial museum! ● Location The Bowes Museum is to be found at Barnard Castle, in the south of County Durham, a small town otherwise dominated by the ruined castle that gives the place its name. It can be reached quite easily from elsewhere in the county, from North Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear (it takes about an hour from Newcastle) by road, but it is essentially somewhere you need a car to visit as the rural location does not lend itself to good public transport. Free car parking is available on site, and both the town and the castle are just a few minutes walk away if you want to have a look around during your visit. ● History The museum is the legacy of John Bowes (the son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore) and his wife Josephine - the couple owned estates in Durham and France in the nineteenth century, the latter of which they sold to pay for the construction of the museum. It has been speculated that this was to fill the gap in their lives left by them being childless, and also to carry on the Bowes name in the area. There was, in addition, a philanthropic motive though, as they sought to provide an educational establishment for ordinary people to experience their growing art collections from around Europe. The building finally opened in 1892, sadly after both the museum's founders had died. ● The collections While a huge array of European fine arts are represented at the museum, there is a predominance of French examples -
John and Josephine together amassed a chronological collection of paintings, furniture, tapestries and ceramics. Rooms on the first and second floors are crammed with bed, tables, musical instruments, bookcases, sofas, chairs, fine paintings; in fact virtually every imaginable type of decorative art from France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The styles on show are also diverse, from Rococo to Louis XVI to imitation Chinese. Along side the French collections are examples from Britain and other European countries, including a set of paintings by Josephine herself. The English art section has largely been amassed by the trustees of the museum in the time since John's death, and are now to be found in a number of period rooms, which were reconstructed from panelling rescued from other houses. Examples of Italian paintings (including a Canaletto), together with Spanish, Dutch and Flemish works can also be found in the Bowes Museum. Perhaps the most famous exhibit, now the inspiration for the new Bowes corporate logo, is the silver automaton swan, to be found in the Spanish gallery on the first floor. Twice daily the mechanism is put in motion by the staff (at 2pm and 4pm) to demonstrate to visitors this beautiful piece of eighteenth century workmanship. The ground floor of the museum is taken up by the local history, prehistory and Roman collections, with some Saxon and Medieval pieces included too. These were collected by the Bowes more for curio values than any attempt at serious displays, but recently have been expanded by the trustees to become one of the principle repositories of archaeological remains in county Durham. Several major excavations are represented here, including those from Barnard Castle itself and Binchester Roman fort. ● Facilities available - Free car parking - Easy access to the majority of the museum for those in wheelchairs - Gift shop - Café Bowes, a really excellent re
staurant - Education service for local schools - Guided tours by Friends of the Museum - Personal lockers for coats and bags - Sound guide - Introductory film - Free use of museum grounds ● My experience I visited the Bowes Museum out of the main season, in late October - this meant that it was very quiet and virtually empty, bar a small school group being shown around. This is definitely a good time to experience the museum, although be warned that a building of such size is very expensive to heat and so remains rather chilly; my advice is to wear warm clothes if you go in autumn or winter! This is certainly a unique experience and you do encounter an awful lot of wonderful material in the museum, including some really rather good temporary exhibitions (check with the museum for details; see below). I do have to nitpick about it a bit though; sorry! Firstly, there is no consistency with the presentations of the labels, which all depend on which curator did them and when - this means that some rooms are really well done, while others frankly are not. As I visited as past of my museums course though, I was treated to a short talk on the matter by the exhibitions officer; there is a programme underway to standardize and improve all labelling although it could be some time before this is implemented. Secondly that the lighting in some rooms is really not good to appreciate the artefacts, and thirdly that the café (while excellent) was a little pricey. Try to allow a full day to see everything in the museum, and do not miss the working of the mechanical swan at 2pm or 4pm. ● Other points Opening - daily, 11am to 5pm Entry price - adults £4, concessions £3, children under 5 free Contact - The Bowes Museum Barnard Castle Co. Durham DL12 8NP (01833) 690606 Internet - www.bowesmuseum.org.uk -firstname.lastname@example.org
The Bowes Museum was originally designed by a French architect by the name of Jules Pellechet, and the house built as a public art gallery. He queen Mother is a descendant of the Bowes family and is now Patron of the Friends. It is all set in large grounds and you are invited to walk around these. LOCATION The Bowes Museum is situated in the town of Barnard Castle in County Durham, just off the A66. It is approximately 20 minutes away from the A1 and is well signposted and easy to get to. OPENING TIMES It is open daily from 11 am until 5pm, and is only closed Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day. ADMISSION CHARGES (includes free car parking and admission to the grounds) Adults £4.00 Children (5- 16 years), pensioners and students £3.00 Under 5’s are FREE. Family tickets are available for 2 adults and 2 children at a cost of £12.00. Admission charges are reduced for the first Saturday of every month, with adults being charged £2.00 each and concessions at £1.00 each. THE MUSEUM The museum is housed over three floors. The ground floor, houses the reception area, where you will be greeted by friendly and helpful staff. Children are welcome to pick up activity sheets here. Other facilities here are the toilets, lifts, shop and café. This floor introduces you to the museum’s history and to John and Josephine Bowes. There are also five archaeology galleries here, which are specially designed for children, with lots of hands on activities. The majority of the artefacts here were found locally and they age from as early as the Stone Age. Up on the first floor is a large collection of art and a suite of period rooms. Temporary collections are housed here and whilst on our visit the theme was jewellery. The toy gallery was a great hit for the children, which included the world’s first toy train as well as collections of dolls, do
ll’s houses, teddy bears and games. The second floor is mainly devoted to Spanish and Italian art, ceramics, musical instruments as well as a large display of nineteenth century costumes. This is by no means a comprehensive description of the many items they have but only a brief outline. EVENTS The museum holds many events throughout the year, with many geared towards the whole family, including concerts and family fun days, which are all included in the admission price, A full list of these events is available on their website and will be worth checking out if you are planning a visit. FOR HIRE Bowes Museum is also available for hire for special occasions including civil wedding ceremonies. ACCESS Wheelchair borrowing is available for visitors with mobility restrictions and most areas of the museum are easily accessible. Lifts link all the floors. Disabled parking is available close to a special entrance which is opened via an intercom system to reception. Guide dogs are permitted and pushchairs are welcome. FACILITIES Café Bowes is licensed and serves light meals, snacks and drinks. Children’s meals are also available. The gist shop sells a range of books, greeting cards, small gifts and souvenirs related to the museum. Disabled toilets as well as baby changing facilities can all be found on the ground floor.