The extraordinary mansion that is the Bowes Museum lies on the eastern fringes of Barnard Castle. Designed and constructed in the French Renaissance style, it is perhaps the North-East’s greatest oddity, being so obviously out of place. And, perhaps just as strangely, it is a purpose-built museum and has never been used as a residence.
It was the brainchild of a rather odd couple, too: the illegitimate John Bowes, a rogue branch of the family line that was to produce Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and one Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevalier, Countess of Montalbo (San Marino) who was an employee of a Parisian theatre. The two had met and fell in love during one of John’s long stays in the French capital, during which time he bought the establishment in which Joséphine worked. They were married in 1852.
John’s wife was big on art, and her husband soon came to share her passion. And so, around a decade into their marriage, they began collecting pieces of art for their own gratification and with the long term intention of establishing a public museum – funded by John’s coal industry dabblings. The collection soon grew to mammoth proportions.
It is simply assumed that John & Joséphine’s English base, Streatlam Castle (a few miles NE of Barnard Castle), became too small to house the collection, hence the necessity of a new purpose-built museum. However, it seems that the spectacular structure almost ended up at Calais…
The late Mr Bowes and his first wife, the Countess of Montalbo, when they formed the idea of founding a museum, did not originally propose to locate it at Barnard Castle. Their first idea was to place it at Calais, within the Countess of Montalbo’s own country, and yet looking towards England, Mr Bowes’ country. They abandoned this idea from a consideration of the permanently unsettled state of politics in France. They thought there was less chance of revolutions occurring in England than in France, in which the works of art might be injured.
[from an account by Mr E.Y.Western, sole acting executor under the will of the late Mr John Bowes of Streatlam Castle]
It took years to bring the plan to fruition. It was not until 1872 that the building work commenced in earnest, but it then ceased in 1882 on account of a slump in the coal trade. In the meantime, Joséphine died in 1874 and John followed her in 1885 – but they made provisions in their wills for the completion of the museum. The establishment finally opened to the public in 1892 and was a massive success.