A Matter of Trust
When it comes to planning holidays, my husband leaves it all to me. I research the destinations, pick the hotels and he turns up and does his best to enjoy whatever I've chosen; after all, he can hardly grumble if he's not done any of the hard work. This year I was so busy that I left the planning of our summer holiday too late and about 8 weeks before we were due to go away, I realised I'd blown it. It was too late to get flights and visas to the place I'd originally intended. My husband, recognising that I really didn't have time, struck a deal with me. We would stay in the UK, go to the North East of England for a week and he'd plan everything – all I had to do was book the hotels. I was happy to avoid the hard work but I'll admit I was rather nervous about what he'd choose. Poor Tony has a habit of taking me to places that are closed.
He photocopied maps and spent hours on the computer working out where to go. 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 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 exception 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.