As The Bowes Museum celebrates 125 years, Jenny Needham reports on a new exhibition throwing the spotlight on the French actress who was a driving force behind its creation

As the actress might have said to the illegitimate County Durham landowner: “Dear John, why don’t we establish a museum and art gallery, something big and bold and very French, drop it into the heart of the Teesdale countryside and fill it with treasures.”

And so, however the conversation really went, they did – and 125 years ago this year, the foundation stone of an incredible chateau-style building, The Bowes Museum, in Barnard Castle, was laid. To celebrate the anniversary, a major new exhibition gives an insight into the woman, an artist and actress, who was a driving force behind its creation

Joséphine Bowes – A Woman of Taste and Influence is a salute to an extraordinary and pioneering woman who was far ahead of her time in establishing a museum to house her collection for the public.

During her short life – she was just 48 when she died - this daughter of a French clockmaker assumed a variety of roles including patron of the arts and collector, artist, woman of fashion, socialite, wife, mistress and actress, all of which are illustrated through key paintings, original archival documents, books, photographs and objects from the Museum collection, some of which are on display for the first time.

Little is known about Joséphine Coffin-Chevallier’s early life before she joined the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris in 1847, the year she met John Bowes, a landowner, businessman, racehorse breeder/owner and former Liberal MP for South Durham. Taking the stage name Mlle Delorme, Joséphine played many leading roles with commensurate salaries. However, she gave up the stage following her marriage to John as it would have been considered socially unacceptable – despite John having purchased the theatre. Though their marriage was an unusual occurrence – as men rarely married their mistresses - it was not unequal, since they were outsiders from formal society; John being illegitimate and Joséphine the daughter of an artisan and an actress.

So how did Joséphine achieve a position of wealth, taste and influence sufficient to establish The Bowes Museum?

Her husband held his own in Parisian society, which was more relaxed than that of England. He had wealth, an upper-class background and education, and was bilingual. Joséphine, with John, hosted dinners, parties and salons where writers, musicians, artists, minor aristocracy and intellectuals could meet, offering her the opportunity to develop her taste, knowledge and appreciation of beauty. Joséphine was fashionable, her love of clothes and jewellery demonstrated by her patronising the leading couturier of the day, Charles Frederick Worth, who dressed her contemporary, Empress Eugénie of France. According to the Revue Critique – a celebrity magazine of the 1860s, “the salons of Madame Bowes are counted among the most brilliant in Paris…”

Joséphine also turned her attention to painting in a world where there were few opportunities for women to train and exhibit their work. Despite these drawbacks, she became a remarkably accomplished painter, with her landscapes exhibited at the Paris Salon – the art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts - on four occasions, and once at the Royal Academy in London. As ever, she was fully aware of the latest trends.

“Joséphine Bowes was credited with having conceived the idea of a museum by John Bowes,” says Joanna Hashagen, exhibition curator with the museum’s archivist Judith Phillips. “She is believed to be the first woman to establish a public museum and art gallery, a remarkable achievement in an era when married women in England could not even hold property in their own name.”

From the early 1860s, the museum venture became uppermost in Joséphine and John’s lives. Joséphine sold her château at Louveciennes and with the proceeds set about more than a decade of sustained collecting assisted by three dealers in Paris. Sometimes she purchased items which, while not to her personal taste, she recognised as being worthy of display in her Museum.

To broaden the scope of the collections Joséphine purchased items from international exhibitions. 2017 sees the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Paris Exhibition, at which the couple first viewed the Silver Swan automaton before purchasing it several years later. At that exhibition, and at the London Exhibition of 1871, she acquired an extraordinary range and quantity of art and craft pieces from most European countries and beyond, as did other significant English museums. She also purchased the work of young French artists, including glass artist Emile Gallé, whom she met at London’s International Exhibition where she purchased and commissioned work from him.

While Joséphine laid the foundation stone of The Bowes Museum on Saturday, November 27, 1869, with a silver and ivory trowel which will be displayed in the exhibition, neither she nor John lived to see it open to the public. Joséphine died in Paris in 1874. The couple’s coffins rest behind the apse of a church, which lies at the edge of the museum park.

In the 125th anniversary year of the museum’s opening the vision of Joséphine Bowes has left a lasting legacy for the education and enjoyment of future generations, which continues to be enhanced by the museum’s contemporary guardians.

  • Josephine Bowes: A Woman of Taste and Influence. May 20 to July 16.
  • On June 10, 1892, The Bowes Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time with a day of public celebration. On June 10, 2017, there will be a day of celebrations in the museum and grounds. There will be fun for all the family, live music by musical groups from across the region, children’s activities, and delicious food and drink, including the chance to join our anniversary picnic with ‘John and Joséphine Bowes’.
  • Curators will be giving talks about their favourite objects from the collection, and there’s a chance for visitors to choose their own favourites to enter into the list of 125 key objects which tell the story of the museum so far. Combined admission to the grounds and museum is £2.50 per adult, children free.