The Bowes family arrived in Teesdale following the Norman Conquest of 1066. The family were at the forefront of mining and transport from the 17th century and spent their money on horses, the arts, gardening and country house building. John Bowes was born in 1811 and was the illegitimate, but fully acknowledged, son of the tenth Earl. His mother, Mary Millner, lived with the Earl and they were married just sixteen hours before the death of the Earl in an attempt to enable the nine year old boy to inherit.
John married the actress Mademoiselle Delorme (Benoite-Josephine Coffin-Chevallier) in 1852 and between 1864 and 1870, they acquired the land for the museum park. The idea for the museum was Josephine’s and following the sale of chateau du Barry, she started to purchase objects for display.
The Bowes Museum was built between 1869-1885 by John Edward Watson of Newcastle upon Tyne. The building was the first in Great Britain to be designed in metric and was designed by French architect Jules Pellechet. The symmetrical facade is dominated by pedimented windows and paired engaged pilasters and columns. The impressive entrance leads through iron doors, that were made in Paris, to a spacious hall with balustrade balcony.
Having laid the foundation stone in 1869, Josephine died in 1874 and never saw the building completed. John continued to make few purchases but concentrated his efforts on completing the museum building. He saw the completion of the building but died in 1885 leaving trustees to finish the project. The Bowes Museum formally opened on 10th June 1892.
John and Josephine envisaged a museum dedicated to European fine and decorative arts from the Middle Ages into their own time. From 1861, they employed the art dealer Benjamin Gogue to identify acquisitions. John and Josephine’s taste followed contemporary fashion and were inspired by styles of the past. Much of the furniture acquired by the Bowes is mainly European and dates from the 15th century.
The furniture that survives at the museum is a collection of French Second Empire that is displayed in room settings that present the personal story of the life that John and Josephine had in France.
The centre of the building features a balustraded balcony which is adorned with columns of grey Aberdeen and pink Peterhead granite.
The collections of porcelain and pottery come from many European countries and date from the 16th to 19th centuries. The Bowes Museum is Grade I Listed.