The Bowes Museum, situated in the historic market town of Barnard Castle, county Durham, is home to an internationally renowned and diverse collection of fine and decorative arts. The museum was the brainchild of John Bowes and his wife Joséphine, who in 1869 laid the foundation stone of what was to become one of the north east of England’s cultural treasures. However, while the museum and its collections stand testament to the artistic passions of the couple, it is the arguably overlooked political career of John Bowes that offers an insight into his character and motivations.
Bowes was the illegitimate son of John Bowes, tenth Earl of Strathmore. The Earl married Bowes’s mother, Mary, on his deathbed to legitimise their son by Scots law, but while Bowes inherited the Earl’s coal-rich estates in county Durham that were to eventually secure his fortune, his claim to the title was rejected in 1821, and he remained sensitive about his pedigree thereafter.
This sensitivity undoubtedly had an impact on his parliamentary career. When he stood as a Liberal for the constituency of Durham South at the 1832 general election, he cut a nervous figure, whose desire not to be misunderstood led to a number of long-winded speeches. Backed by the influential Duke of Cleveland, he was comfortably elected, but he was never at ease in the rarefied air of the Victorian Commons, and over the course of a fifteen year career in Parliament, he never once spoke in debate. He did, though, act as an important lobbyist for the Great North of England railway company, in which he held £1,000 of shares.
Bowes often displayed an ambivalent attitude towards a career at Westminster, and this was largely due to his unwillingness to use his own financial resources. Determined that he would ‘sacrifice time and health, but not spend his own money’ on parliamentary politics, he decided in 1842 that he stand down at the next general election. When he retired in 1847 he wrote to his agent that ‘the town is full of electioneering. What a luxury it is to see all this and know one has not to pay for it!’ This parsimonious attitude was arguably at odds with a willingness to risk his money on the racecourse. Having inherited his father’s stud at Streatlam, county Durham, he was an enthusiastic horse-breeder, and won the Derby four times, earning him a reputation as ‘the luckiest man of the turf’.
On one bizarre occasion, this luck extended to the floor of the Commons. In November 1843, after successfully backing his own horse in the Derby, which earned him £22,000, he was the subject of a ‘qui tam’ legal action for ‘excessive or deceitful gaming’, brought forward under the obsolete statute of 9 Anne, c. 14. On his solicitor’s advice, he remained abroad until Lord George Bentinck, who had also been served with notices of action, organised a hasty repeal of the statute!
In 1847, following his retirement, Bowes settled in Paris, having been an avid Francophile ever since his Continental tour while a student at Cambridge. In 1852 he married Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevallier, a French actress and painter. United by a love of fine art, the couple developed the idea of founding a collection of paintings, ceramics and furniture at Bowes’s ancestral home at Streatlam Castle, and between 1862 and 1874 an astonishing 15,000 objects were purchased. Joséphine’s untimely death in 1874, however, threatened to derail the whole project, and when Bowes died childless in 1885, the building was yet to be completed. Nevertheless, following a period of financial uncertainty, the project continued under the leadership of Trustees and in June 1892 the Bowes Museum was finally opened to the public. It attracted nearly 63,000 visitors in its first year.
In 2013 the museum remains a major cultural attraction, particularly its 18th century Silver Swan automaton (purchased by Bowes in 1872), which preens itself and appears to catch and swallow a fish. Further information on the museum can be found here. For details of how to access Bowes’s full History of Parliament biography from our preview site, along with electoral histories of county Durham’s constituencies from 1832 to 1868, see here.
- C. E. Hardy, John Bowes and the Bowes Museum (1970)