Joséphine and John Bowes Museum – From Paris to Barnard Castle

Join me this episode as we delve into the history of one of my favourite places, the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle which houses a vast collection built on a love story between Joséphine and John…

Holly: Hello darlings welcome back to Past Loves, the weekly history podcast that explores affection, infatuation and attachment across time to bring you a touch of romance to daily life. Welcome back. I hope that you are enjoying the new season. I’m so loving getting back into the swing of things and the episodes I have in the pipeline are very very exciting. 

Also, over on the Past Loves Instagram @pastlovespodcast there are exciting things happening with the Book Club which is also one of my favourite things. We’ve been reading Widows by Maggie Andrews and Janis Lomas. My copy was kindly gifted to me by the History Press but regardless I thoroughly enjoyed it and you can hear more of my thoughts about the book over on Instagram on the 10th October 2021 because Book Club is always the second Saturday of every month. 

At the moment though I’ve been reading Normal People by Sally Rooney and when the series came out it took a lot of willpower not to watch it straight away because everyone, everyone, was talking about it. But I really really wanted to read the book first. I don’t know how you feel but there are some things that I don’t mind if I read the book after the series – like Outlander I actually prefer to watch the season first and then read the corresponding book – but with Normal People I just knew I wanted to read the book first ad then watch the series second. So that’s my current read at the moment. I’ve been devouring it so that is next on my to watch list! I’m sure I’ll binge that with equally ferocity I think at this point, it seems like it’s going to be a great watch.

Anyway back to actual romances, the history of romance! Today we are going to journey to one of my favourite places to discover a remarkable love story between a couple that pursued a shared vision. That is to say that we will be discussing the relationship between John and Joséphine Bowes with Judith Phillips who is the honorary archivist at the Bowes Museum. 

The Bowes Museum is a hidden treasure in the heart of Teesdale, based in the historic town of Bernard Castle. A truly magnificent museum, it looks like a stately home but was built in the 19th Century, specifically by John and Joséphine to house remarkable and significant collections of fine and decorative arts. The museum was, therefore, created by an extraordinary couple who collected the greatest private collection of fine and decorative arts (including furniture, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, textiles and many other items covering an extensive range of European styles and periods) and they did all with the vision to open up to the public. You’ll find out during our conversation the lengths over a relatively short amount of time that they went to to curate this incredible collection. In fact, now Bowes stands as the North’s museum of art, fashion and design. 

It really is one of my favourite places to visit, there are always wonderful exhibitions and of course there is the silver swan automaton. Currently he’s having a little rest for Covid reasons but normally, everyone crowds round a 2pm to watch the swan do it’s thing and however many times you see it it’s still magical. If you can’t go, I really highly recommend checking it out on YouTube because it is really, little silver swan. So, really Bowes Museum is a must-visit – I love it – and it is all because of the love story between John and Joséphine which is why I was so pleased to talk to Judith about this pioneering couple… 

Welcome, Judith, and thank you so much for joining me today. 

Judith: It’s a pleasure. 

Holly: So I thought maybe we could start off by talking about John. So what was his childhood like and what did it mean to be part of the Bowes family at that time?

Judith: I think you have to think of it in two different ways. One is that the Bowes family were very prominent County Durham landowners, but John’s grandmother, Mary Eleanor Bowes married the 9th Earl of Strathmore, which gives them the title and it gives the Strathmores the money and under Mary Eleanor father’s will to have to take the Bowes name so they become Lyon-Bowes, which later changes to being Bowes-Lyon, the Queen mother’s family. But John is illegitimate, born illegitimate, his parents don’t marry until he’s nine and that’s just the day before his father dies. And there is sort of a backstory as well about the 10th Earl, having previous relationships and it’s not till he’s in his 40s that he has John by Mary Milner, who’s a local Teesdale girl. I mean, it’s quite clear that John was acknowledged by his father and looked after by him, both his mother and John and John has a gentleman’s education, but all of his life is coloured by the fact that on his father’s death – John is only nine – there are a number of court cases and a hearing at the House of Lords to determine whether John Bowes inherits his father’s title and becomes the 11th Earl, and he doesn’t. The decision is that John inherits the English estates, but not the Scottish estates and not the Scottish title which go to his uncle. So there is that sort of split that sort of uncertainty all the way through, I think, colouring his life. But I think on the whole, he probably had a caring, happy, a stable childhood.

Holly: Yeah, it’s very poignant that trying to kind of find his place in society as he goes through. So you mentioned that he has a gentlemen’s education at Eton and then Cambridge. 

Judith: That’s right.

Holly: What does he decide to do after that as a career?

Judith: Basically, again, he follows the gentleman’s path, the landed gentry, he becomes a Member of Parliament. In fact, just before he leaves Cambridge, he’s elected under the first parliament following the Reform Act and he serves as the MP for South Durham right through till 1847. Not I suspect are very active MP shall we say, there’s a dearth of references to him in that House of Commons records. But there is evidence that, you know, when he is a contested, then he wins the election. And he does have some quite clear principles where he is in conflict with some elements of his constituent and so he’s following that that sort of recognised gentleman’s path. Of course, he’s also inherited the estates. By the time he’s 21, he then takes over their governance. So he’s a landowner, he’s an MP, he carries on his father’s horse breeding, and he breeds very successful racehorses. One of his horses, the West Australian, is the first to win the Triple Crown. So he makes money out of this as well, of course, and he becomes involved with some of the local industry. So he has a partnership with Charles Palmer Jarrow, mostly coal mining, but some of the associated trades with that as well. So shipbuilding and smelting and things like that.

Holly: So what is his status in aristocratic circles?

Judith: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I think at the moment, we honestly have to say we couldn’t give a definitive answer. But I think we have to bear in mind that this uncertainty about his legitimacy, his social status, compromised his acceptance in aristocratic circles. I don’t think we have any evidence, for example, that he’s part of the higher aristocratic circles in London social entertaining there. Locally, yes, he does have a local connection with the Vane family at Raby Castle through another branch off and things like that. But I think he’s not really accepted as, you know, top drawer.

Holly: So in 1847, as you said, he moves from his MP seat, and he goes to live in France.

Judith: Yes and no.

Holly: yes?

Judith: He’s been going to France for many years and spending, you know, several months there so really right the way through the 1840s. So he’s already established a sort of a life in Paris anyway. What he does in 1847, if you like, is give up the majority of his public office commitments in England. He never, never lives full time in Paris. He is always coming back to England for looking after the estates, for the horse race meetings and things like that. So I think you have to think of him as having a base in England in Streatlam Castle near Barnard Castle and also in London, but also having a base in France and he’s moving between the two of them. 47 is where we would sort of say he makes that decision to have a joint life in both places, both countries.

Holly: and it’s in Paris that he meet Joséphine? 

Judith: Yes. 

painting of Josephine in a white chiffon dress
Joséphine Bowes by Antoine Dury

Holly: So how, when and where do they meet?

Judith: It would be lovely to have something that says ‘I met Joséphine…’

Holly: Yes that day!

Judith: Probably, probably early 1847. We know that that is when Joséphine first appears in the wage books for the Théâtre des Variétés and it’s around about that sort of time that she starts appearing in John’s letter books, his record of letters received and sent. Unfortunately we don’t have the letters, which is really, really sad. And it’s also around about 1847 that we find them living in the same property. So I think we’re probably okay to say 47. I mean, we know that John had had a previous mistress, another actress, and she sort of drops out of the picture in early to middle for 1847. And Joséphine comes in. So yeah, 47.

Holly: Yeah. So it was at the Théâtre des Variétés. What was his involvement there?

Judith: He’d always been interested in theatre. I mean, even when he was in England, but he had the opportunity in Paris to buy into the management of the Théâtre des Variétés and basically he becomes the owner. Somebody else actually runs it, but he’s the owner.

Holly: So shall we talk a little about Joséphine and we know about her?

Judith: What we don’t know!

Holly: Well that’s the question. What do we know about her childhood? If anything?

Judith: Yeah, I mean, Joséphine Coffin-Chevallier. Her father is a, he’s described as an all horloger, which could be a clockmaker, it could be a watchmaker, we really don’t know what his sort of status is. We have nothing as far as I know, yet. I’m always hopeful that, you know, somebody will do this other research over in Paris and give us those extra nuggets of information. Her mother probably isn’t working. So it’s a sort of artisan background. I mean, one of the things that always struck me was that in 1847, when she appears at the Théâtre des Variétés, she is 23, what she’d been doing in those 23 years? We know when she’s born and we know when she starts at the Théâtre des Variétés. We recently discovered that she did do a little bit of acting beforehand. But we really just don’t know. We don’t know what sort of education she had. We know that she could sing and dance and act and she becomes quite adept in later on when she’s married John at acquiring other skills, but we really know very, very little about her. She has an older sister, and the family does seem to stay quite close. But apart from that we know very little. 

Holly: No, it’s a shame isn’t it? 

Judith: We do know that Joséphine and her sister were both born in Paris and that her parents did not come from Paris. Her father came from Lyon and her mother came from… and I forgotten where it is, um, but it was more into the north. So it’s likely that her parents actually came to Paris as part of that generation who’ve been disrupted by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period. It would be fantastic, again, to have that bit more information, but we just don’t have it yet. I’m sure that somebody somewhere will find it for us.

Holly: Yes. So you mentioned that Joséphine was an actress what was the status of actresses in mid-19th century French society?

Judith: I think you’ve got two different sorts of levels. You’ve got the classic actress who is performing in Théâtre Francais with the classic French plays and things like that. Now quite a lot of them become really highly respected. But actresses are always regarded, I think as part of what we would term the demi-monde, that halfway house between respectability and not respectable. And in many cases, actresses were regarded as you know, little better than prostitutes. Joséphine herself again, again we don’t know enough about her background to know if she had had a protector before John. But it’s fair, I think to say that the Théâtre des Variétés did not produce the classic plays. It was very much fast and vaudeville. And, again, recently we’ve come across reviews of Joséphine’s performance which have corrected what had always been seen as her being a poor actress and only getting the roles at the theatre because of John’s influence, whereas now we’ve got a wider range of reviews which would perhaps place her as being slightly better at this sort of comedy, vaudeville and of course, one of the great attractions of the vaudeville and the farces is that a lot of the roles require you to dress as a man in breeches showing off your legs. And there is one illustration that we that has been brought to our attention recently that does show Joséphine in one of those roles. So it’s not that respectable a profession.

Holly: But was it fairly normal to install your mistress in your household like John did with Joséphine?

Judith: I think what he does is he creates a household for her.

Holly: Okay

Judith:…in which he participates, so that he, you know, he’s renting property at Auteuil where she’s installed. There is also, as I say, an address in the Rue Germain where it appears that John has one apartment and she has another and then they move to the Cité d’Antin. These are all places that have got associations, if you like, with keeping a mistress and or being near the theatre. And John himself is renting these places, and Joséphine is sharing his life there. It’s only really when they get married that you get a different strand appearing in their life.

history of Bowes museum
Bowes Museum (credit: Bowes Museum)

Holly: Yes, because they did break with convention and get married in 1852. So what was married life like for them in Paris?

Judith: You have to remember as well that they get married in Paris in 1852 and they get married in London in 1854. And I’ve always suspected that this is because John’s own experience of his parents marriage difficulties, prompted him to make sure there was going to be no question about the legality of their marriage. We do know that the Cité d’Antin apartment, which is the one where she’s painted by Dury, is fashionable. It’s moving further west as an address in Paris which is getting more respectable. But also I think the big difference, of course, is that John gives her the Chateau du Barry at Louveciennes as a wedding present. So they have a town base and they have this country base for entertainment It’s not that far out of Paris, but it’s really classy. It has a backstory as well, Madame du Barry, he was one of Louis XV’s mistresses. So there is that sort of connection, if you like, that I suspect Joséphine was quite thrilled about.

Holly: Yeah, I think you’d be pretty pleased with that as your wedding present.

Judith: It’s a lovely house. It still exists. It’s beautiful house and nice gardens and things like that. And there’s a lovely painting that Josephine herself made of it after they’d left. I think she was probably very happy there. Once she’d become confident about being a hostess at that sort of level of society. This is not what she had been brought up to expect of life and I think it takes her a few years to get used to what you were expected to do. She has helped from various firms and things but there’s a lot of interior decorating goes on, there’s a lot of entertaining that goes on and I suspect they had quite a quite a social life at that sort of level.

Holly: It seems like they hosted some quite remarkable people and that John was a bit more accepted as a high society man at that time.

Judith: I think so I think again, this is sort of a split Joséphine’s social life, her parties and things go right the way through the 1850s and into the 1860s – right the way through her life she’s an entertaining socialite, and this is where the sort of the descriptions come in. I wish we had some of the lists of people who came to the parties, we don’t. We have some names that crop up in their circle of friends and I think it would be very instructive to have a bit more information about them. John, joins a number of the rather exclusive masculine clubs. So yes, he’s accepted at that sort of level, particularly through the horse racing. And there are a lot of aristocratic Englishmen living in Paris still with whom he has that sort of social connection.

Holly: Yes. You mentioned some of the reviews. There’s one from the Review Critique, which was a celebrity magazine, and it says ‘the salons of Madame Bowes are counted among the most brilliant in Paris’ which sounds rather fantastic.

Judith: Yes. There’s another one from the Review Critique which again, you have to sort of think of as being not exactly unbiased (Joséphine knew the wife of the editor, for example and she is a subscriber) where they talks about her party’s being a place where the aristocracy and the intelligentsia can meet and talk. So I think she’s positioning herself there is a cultural milieu, which would be very, very acceptable.

Holly: Do you think it was a happy marriage?

Judith: Yes, I do. There was no need for there to be a marriage, I think one has to accept that this was a love match and it lasted right the way through. I think it’s one of our sadness that we have so few letters. We only have the one from Joséphine to John and non from John to Joséphine. But we have John’s letters, which are nearly always making some reference to Joséphine to her health or to what they’re doing. He’s very concerned, I think about her activities. He supports her all the time, I think he’s only worried that if she’s over tiring yourself, over stretching herself, because her health is always an issue. But yes, I think so I think John is an absolute supporter of whatever it is that Joséphine is wanting to do. And I think, conversely, that when they do come over to England, and they do on a fairly regular basis, much as she can manage the sea, but you know that their life up here in Barnard Castle, at Streatlam Castle, is very much what you would expect of a lady of the manor. She takes a sort of part in local activity. She supports local charities and local institutions, as would have been expected, she might not actually attend them or anything like that. But people write and ask for a subscription or for a support and generally speaking, it is given within the same sort of context as John would do.

Holly: The patronage of the arts was very important for them as a couple, specifically Joséphine. 

Judith: Yes.

Holly: What did it look like in the beginning of their marriage?

Judith: John had already started collecting before he married. So he’d already, I think, taken on, if you like that gentleman’s obligation to increase the heritage, the heirlooms of his family, and he had started buying some of the early Italian painters not very fashionable at the time, but he’s beginning to move into it. I think what happens for Joséphine is that again, she’s introduced to a completely different sort of life, and she has to become accustomed to it. So the portrait by Dury, for example, shows a book-lined study. It’s got an imari vase which is very fashionable. Her clothing is fashionable. There is a glimpse through into another room where there may be paintings on the wall. I think perhaps in those early years in the 50s, she’s more concerned with consolidating her position in society and learning. So a lot of their interior decorating is guided by a company called Monbro fils aîné and it’s only really, I think, when you get to the 60s with that positive decision to make a collection with a view to a Public Museum, that she tends to come into her own. The early negotiations in 60/61 are predominantly with John, and then later, through the 60s, I think as she becomes more confident, you start to find that she becomes the main negotiator with the various dealers. And I think, I think it starts to reflect the intention of the museum – which is basically to introduce as wide range as possible fine and decorative art – but also elements of our own choice with an emphasis perhaps on French ceramics and French painting.

john bowes bowes museum
John Bowes

Holly: You mentioned that they took this decision in around 1860 to create the public museum and that also, Joséphine’s health and we can talk about John south as well, was, was a problem. How did these link up?

Judith: Again, this is all speculation. When you look at sort of the 1860/61 marker Joséphine is in her late 30s. John is in his 40s edging upwards, and I suspect that it becomes clear at this point that they are unlikely to have children. Joséphine’s health, as you say, has been an issue all the way through and we have got dozens of bills from chemists, pharmacists for various treatments and things like that. And it looks as though use Joséphine’s health problems are to do with skin and stomach. Now that could sort of be a cover for gynaecological problems. As far as I know, there is no specific evidence, one hint possibly of her ever being pregnant. So I suspect that you know, childlessness becomes an issue because of course, that would mean that the property in England that was John’s would revert to the Strathmore family. So there would be no heir, no legacy, and I think that is certainly one of the prompts. It would be lovely again to find something that said exactly why but John specifically does say that the whole project of the museum was my wife’s idea alone, and he supported it. So I think we’re looking at creating a legacy.

Holly: Yes. And it does seem from how the idea progressed for the museum and just the beginning of the idea that it was a marriage of equals.

Judith: Yes, I think so I think sort of by that time married, getting off for 10 years, known each other for over 10 years. I think that Joséphine’s confidence within the marriage has grown sufficiently. They’re never social equals, absolutely, and they’re certainly never financial equals but I think within the marriage, they are a supporting couple. And I don’t think…I don’t think there’s anything I can take away from that that is, is them, that they are a couple who are so interwoven in their interests and support.

Holly: I liked to the story, Joséphine laying the foundation stone for the museum, and she says that our lay the first day, and you Mr. Bowes will lay the last or the top stone. I just think that’s very sweet.

Judith: It is, isn’t it? And I think that probably indicates that sort of level of commitment and cooperation. Incidentally, the data the foundation was delayed for a week because Joséphine wasn’t well. It’s another occasion when ill health gets in the way.

Holly: It does seem that a lot of the bills and communication does go through Joséphine.

Judith: Yes, it does, certainly in the 1860s. In 1860, they take the decision to sell the Chateau de Barry at Louveciennes and that frees up money that they then use both to buy land at Barnard Castle for the proposed museum and to start buying. I think the first two years or so when they’re buying the Spanish paintings from Gogué that is mostly negotiated by John and sometimes jointly. But certainly as you move into the 60s, it’s quite clear that Joséphine is the main negotiator and John, of course, sometimes has to come to England without her so she is actually negotiating by herself. The only time when it’s clear she doesn’t is when they are travelling. In 1868, they take a long journey through Northern Europe over to Austria, Germany, and Hungary and places like that. And John seems to be the negotiator there, probably because they’re not speaking French. Joséphine is French through and through, I don’t think she there was any evidence, for example, that she knew any German or things like that – although I suspect she could hold her own or at least understand what’s happening in English.

Holly: I find it really interesting looking into how they actually went about creating this massively vast collection, because it spans such a range of time periods, and like the whole of Europe they really look for.

Judith: I think that’s deliberate. And I think if you think of it in terms of being a public museum that is both to be enjoyed and to be educational, sort of like South Kensington, which then becomes the V&A. That was their sort of remit. The idea is to introduce people to beauty and art, so that it will, it will illuminate their lives and also help perhaps with the creative processes and improve all sorts of industrial attitudes as well. And so I think you start with this idea that it’s going to be fine and decorative arts from Europe, and that it is going to cover a wide range of genre. So it covers everything, not just textiles, and small objects like snuff boxes and things like that, which were traditionally seen as being suitable for a woman. But you’re also you’ve got this huge range of ceramics, which again, is seen as being female oriented, but they are collecting right the way from basic material to the hugely decorative Meissen and Sèvres. The paintings: you’re getting miniature watercolours to enormous canvases. So yeah, a huge range. And I think, as an idea, one has to applaud it. It’s quite unusual.

Holly: When you visit Bowes. You can see the vast array of things that they collected as a as a couple and it’s very interesting. So what roles did Lamer – I’m not sure exactly how to pronounce his name…

Judith: Monsieur Lamer and Mme Lepautre

Holly: Yeah, what role did they play in the in the collection process?

Judith: They’re the two main dealers that John Joséphine actually conducted the business through. And I think again, it’s worth remembering that a most collectors would have dealt through an agent of some sorts. It might be their own particular personal agent or it might be through dealers. And again, it’s not always clear how it worked, but it’s likely to be in two different ways. One would be if there is an upcoming auction, then there will be preview days and there’ll be a catalogue produced, and I suspect that Joséphine, probably with John, you would go through these would go to the private ones. And then they would leave it to mostly to Mme Lepautre, but also Lamer a little bit to actually attend the auction and buy things. It’s clear from the letters that they are sometimes asking their dealers to go out of Paris to attend a sale. And then also it’s it looks from the letters and the bills as though Lamer in particular, actually had a shop. And on a couple of occasions, he invites them to go to the shop, to look at something that’s too big to bring to the house. But it looks as though quite often the dealers are making a selection, bringing them to the house, and then John or Joséphine, probably Joséphine I think, is deciding which things out of that offer, they will actually take. And sometimes you know, there are maybe two or three bills on a single day, depending on what they’re doing. So they might actually hang on to stuff for a couple of weeks while they decide what they want or they might make a decision straight away. Interesting, too, that Lepautre is female. There aren’t that many female agents, I don’t think female dealers, but there’s nothing to suggest that Joséphine felt more comfortable dealing with one or the other. I suspect it’s more to do with the fact that the Lepautre and Lamer perhaps had slightly different genres in which they were interested or had the connections.

bowes museum love story
Bowes Museum was built as a public museum rather than ever being a stately home (credit: Bowes Museum)

Holly: And then there was also some talk that they went to the international exhibitions throughout the 1860s. So what happened there?

Judith: I mean, you start with the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. And I mean, there is some evidence that John had gone to that, then you’ve got Paris returning, if you like, the compliment of the 1855. And again, I’ve not found any evidence of that. But at 62. Yes, they definitely buy material in 1862. But it’s 1867, in Paris and in 1871, in London, where they really buy a lot, and we have got a good lot of documentary evidence for it, you know, that always thrills me as an archivist to say ‘right, we’ve got a folder full of bills’ or something like that. And again, they using this, I think, as an opportunity to buy material from countries that they’re not gonna have an opportunity to visit. So they buy from Scandinavia. They buy from Russia.They buy from the Balkans, and they buy some material from India, for example. So it is them, I think, making use of that international opportunity. What is difficult sometimes is to decide what they buy for their own use and entertainment and enjoyment and what they buy for the museum. So there is that sort of uncertainty occasionally about the purpose of some of the things but it’s, as I say, it’s really nice to have a folder full of little tickets as it were from the from one of the exhibitions that says, you know, ‘go to buy this, and it’ll cost you this much,’ etc. That’s good.

Holly: It was at an exhibition that they first saw the silver Swan.

Judith: Probably in 67. It was on display in 1867 and it was up for sale in 1867. But wasn’t sold. We don’t know exactly how and when they came to the decision to buy that or how they came to buy it really. It turns up as the second most expensive item a jewellers bill. I think it costs them 5000 francs, which would have been 200 pounds at that time. But top of the bill is a necklace, I think it is for something like 20,000. And there are about 15 items on that bill, it’s very expensive, they are spending a lot of money, or really a lot of money. But you see, I think the swan would have interested both of them because it’s an automaton. And they do seem to have bought a lot of clocks, watches, mechanical things and I think Joséphine’s father, his work would have perhaps given her an interest in that and John seems to have been genuinely interested in these sort of curiosities, right from being quite young. So I think the silver swan, as an opportunity is not one that they’re going to pass up if they can manage to do it. And it’s it’s not that expensive. What is interesting as well is that there is a small amount of paperwork about it, including instructions about how to construct it, that John puts together and he writes to his agent, Mr. Denton says, ‘I have put together all the papers about a silver swan because if anything happens, nobody will know how to put it together and here are all the instructions.’ It’s great.

Holly: Oh, that’s amazing.

Judith: It’s lovely, isn’t it? But you know, once it’s been taken down, and it’s in the jeweller’s, you do wonder whether they ever saw it working apart from possibly an 1867 exhibition.

Holly: Yes, because it is rather magical when it does work.

Judith: It is it’s lovely. Yes. Yeah. I can watch at any number of times and still get a little thrill.

Holly: Absolutely. When you go to Bowes you have to be there for the two o’clock showing where it does it has it’s little moment.

Judith: Well I can remember as a child myself being coming to Barnard Castle because I didn’t live that far away and seeing it operating in the hall so it was great coming back and seeing this again.

Holly: Do you have a favourite thing from the collection?

Judith: That’s a tricky one. I mean, in some ways I’ve got favourite things. I like her painting called Squally weather, near Boulogne, which is one of the ones that she exhibited in the Paris Salon, because I think it fits with the only surviving letter that we have from Joséphine to John. And she’s in Boulogne, because she’s a lousy sailors and she waits in Boulogne until the sea is calm enough to go over the channel. And she writes to him to say that she’s been doing some painting out on the rocks. And I do wonder if it’s that. It’s 1867 the letter, and that’s 1870, the painting, at least it’s exhibited, then. It’s a lovely painting. And as I say, because it’s got that particular sort of resonance, I think it’s really nice as well. If I’m being naughty, then I’d also say for myself, there’s a lovely mantel clock by Antoine-Andre around about 1810. And it’s a library. And it’s got books at the back. It’s got a lady in sort of ancient Greek outfit reading. And then it’s got the clock. And I’m a classics graduate, and I just love it. And it you know, it just it sits there and it is intriguing, because every time you look at it, you see something different. And if I could have a library like that, I’d have a clock like that.

Holly: I mean that’s my kind of thing as well. I love anything like that, especially anything a little over the top I’m a big fan of.

Judith: So yes what about the little mechanical mouse studded with pearls – beautiful – or the Napoleon box with diamonds. There is a lot of OTT stuff, one has to say that bling. But on the other hand, it demonstrates a particular period and a particular taste. And if there’s one thing we know about taste, it’s that it changes people’s concept of it. So things that were top fashion, if you like in 1600s, are not going necessarily going to be the same in the 1800s. And, you know, we suspect that quite a number of the objects that are now part of the museum collection would have been part of Joséphine’s domestic collection for use in the house. But by the time the museum comes into being in 20 years after Joséphine’s death, they’re out of fashion. So put them in a museum. And don’t forget, I mean, they’re also commissioning items. I mean, the 1871 exhibition in London is Joséphine commissions items from Emile Galle just starting out on his career, and then becomes a very important player in the development of the Art Nouveau movement. And these are things that she specifically commissions for the museum, as they ask for a very, very large vase, for example. So there are two things that she’s thinking of all the time, I think, and that’s the museum and your own use.

Holly: It’s actually very sad that she dies, young in 1874, because it means that they’ve amassed a vast collection of over 15,000 objects in, I think, 12 years.

Judith: Something like that.

Holly: And then she never gets to see it. 

Judith: She doesn’t get to see it on display in the museum – of course neither does John – I mean, quite a lot of it, I think, is on display at various times in their townhouse Rue de Berlin where they have these extensive parties. There certainly is some evidence that things were on the walls or things or displayed. I suspect that had she lived, she would have been very involved indeed in the display and maintenance of the museum. And I think it’s clear that she envisaged living in the museum because she was that much younger than John, she perhaps expected to outlive him and the museum was going to be her project for widowhood. And John himself says that it was Joséphine who knew the sort of background, the provenance, the information about most of the objects and he didn’t know as much and that was a problem later on when they’re trying to catalogue the collection and send it over to England. But I think she was intending to be a very hands on museum person.

Holly: What did John’s letters tell us about what life was like for him after she died?

Judith: He was devastated. He really was. There are a couple of letters where he responds to letters of condolence. And it says, there’s one which sort of says, ‘without exaggeration, I can assure you that the heaviness of the affliction which has fallen on me is such that I alone can appreciate it. My wife and I have lived especially of late years so much together and separated from the rest of the world and occupied with the same pursuits and objects, that her loss coming so suddenly is doubly severe, and leaves me very lonely and wretched.’ And I think that really his response to Joséphine’s death, it is sort of echoed by letters from other friends, and who talked about their close relationship and things like that. So I think, I think he’s, I think he’s at sea. He’s lost, really without her. And I think the museum project was so tied up in her that he finds it quite difficult to think about how he can take this forward.

Holly: So how does he take everything from France back to the castle and set up the Charitable Trust that then runs the museum?

Judith: Again, Joséphine’s will, in 1871, basically sets up the museum, and it’s full of how it’s got to be run, and things like that. And John, to a certain extent, just reinforces that. So obviously, all her possessions become his and he’s there basically saying all of this, that is for the museum, he makes a division, of course, between what is Museum and what is not complicated by life in France. But I mean, material is boxed up, there are a number of little record books that tell us exactly what is in each case. And it’s sent over to England, by river, by steamer across the channel, by train, whatever seems to be the most suitable way. A few things get damaged. John is very cross and writes to people about, you know, there’s been some rain damage or a couple of things have been cracked, but it’s very well organized. John is actually a very organized person. And so he uses firms that he’s used before to have material sent over. And yes, it’s clear that material is stored at Streatlam castle until such time as the museum is in a state where it can accept things so that when it’s got his roof on.

Holly: Helpful!

Judith: Yeah, but that I think he’s really what he’s doing. He’s sending material from France, as really as quickly as possible. Joséphine, I mean, they had started while Joséphine was still alive, sending this over and keeping it in Streatlam, so that it could be safe and then passed over to the museum. I think what you do see from Joséphine’s will, is a clear view of ensuring that the people who run the museum, the Charitable Trust if you like, include some of the great and the good. So you’ve got Lord Barnard, you’ve got representatives of local government, you’ve got representatives of the art world and then she also makes an interesting provision, which is that when it is up and running fit, six elected ratepayers from Barnard Castle. So local people are also going to be involved in ensuring that this local museum is run. Very unusual, of course it would all be men at the time but still one can’t have everything.

Holly: No, you can’t. And I find it quite sad that in his rudderless state, John kind of clings on to this new wife.

Judith: Yes, I think, you know, again, there’s a lot of work still to be done about finding out more about Alphonsine. She’s had a bad press. Again, I think we have to remember that John had actually known her for a while since she was a young girl since she was about 12. He knew the family. He was very good friends with her stepfather. So he’d known her as a child. Alphonsine herself made a disastrous marriage to this. And I think that after Joséphine’s death, John, I think hoped that Alphonsine would become the helper, would help him see through this project. She’s come from a family with cultural connections with museum connections. I think he just misjudges it. She’s had absolutely no interest whatsoever in the museum. As far as I know, she only comes to England once and isn’t terribly taken. So I think it’s a matter there of him making a mistake. But through her, he actually gets an introduction to a different set of literary and cultural people as well. So there is that? I think, clearly it wasn’t happy or a successful marriage. He does sue for divorce. But either Alphonsine or her lawyers are very good at delaying things and finding ways of not going to court. And I think in the end, he’s in his 70s, he’s not well, he decides that it’s not worth the hassle and he goes through legal separation, under which Alphonsine gets the house in Paris. And then the poor first curator Owen Scott has to have a tussle really about getting out of rue de Berlin, the things that belong to the museum. But, uh, you know, I mean, I do think that there is a lot more to be found out about Alphonsine. Yeah, an interesting person in some ways. 

Holly: Yeah. 

Judith: I do think it’s sad that John did not make a better choice.

bowes museum under rainbow
Somewhere over the rainbow (credit: Bowes Museum)

Holly: It’s a very sad end from them both because he dies, at quite an old age, at 74 in 1885 and it wasn’t until June in 1892 that the museum actually opened.

Judith: Yes and I think that in that interval it’s quite interesting, I mean I think it’s quite interesting anyway, in Joséphine’s will she asks for the museum to be called the Joséphine and John Bowes Museum and John passes that information on. By 1892, Joséphine’s been dead for nearly 20 years. Most of the people involved would not have had any sort of close relationship with her and that’s, I think, when the decision is made to simply call it the Bowes Museum and Joséphine drops out of that. Had they gone ahead with the Joséphine and John, I think it would have been the first museum that had a woman’s name in it, and particularly a woman’s name at the beginning of it. But it was seen, very much seen, as an addition to the town that would be education and it would also bring the tourists. It was very much welcomed in lots of different ways. The trouble was that John’s will was complicated. His financial situation was difficult and it took the trustees the best part of 20 years before they actually got the legacy which turned out of course to be worth much less then than it would have been in John’s heyday. But they kept going.

Holly: Do you feel them as a couple when you’re at Bowes? Can you feel their legacy?

Judith: I feel, I feel grateful for their vision and for their toughness if you like for carrying it through. I think Joséphine would have been an interesting woman to meet if not very difficult to deal with. I don’t think I would have liked her but I can admire her and that goes for John too. He saw the possibilities in Joséphine and encouraged them. Yes I kind of feel like they’re there. I hope they appreciate how the museum has developed and of course they are buried just beside the museum. So they were buried originally at Gibside which was another property that John Bowes had. In 1928 when the Roman Catholic Memorial Chapel was consecrated, John and Joséphine’s bodies were bought and are buried just outside the church. So you can actually see their graves from the garden and grounds of the museum. So they are close. Then of course there’s those lovely portraits so whenever you walk into the gallery there they are.

Holly: And how do you think that they should be remembered as a couple?

Judith: I think as a loving couple with a great vision. It’s really interesting sometimes looking at how their legacy has been described, so you know: philanthropy, open-heartedness, munificence, childlessness. All of these reasons have been postulated but we don’t actually know. But I think they’re a loving couple who had an idea that they brought to fruition for the general good. Again I think it’s not easy to remember sometimes that that building was never a stately home. It was a museum, a museum built for the public and again two factors I think we have to keep in mind.

Holly: Well I think that’s the perfect place to end. Thank you so much for joining me today. 

Judith: My pleasure, I enjoyed doing it. Thank you very much for inviting me.

Holly: And thank you for listening! I really hope that you enjoyed learning more and more about John and Joséphine Bowes and in turn, the Bowes Museum. I find particularly Joséphine a fascinating character and I’m sure, as Judith mentioned, that more and more will be discovered about her life. But really as a couple together I just find them so inspirational, because they really put so much passion into this project that was for the people and that, in the end, we can all still enjoy today. The museum remains a unique monument to taste in the mid-nineteenth century, and to the dedication and industry of John and Joséphine. It also stands as a monument to their love for each other. And after Joséphine died, John received a letter of condolence from Henry Morgan Vane which recalled the many times he and his wife had witnessed – and I’m going to quote him now – “the unusual devotion & admiraton which Mrs Bowes unintentionally manifested towards you & the return of your love & attachment for her…”. I mean if that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does?! It touched my heart that letter. It was so beautiful and showed their true devotion to one another that it was just palpable for everyone.

At the moment you can book tickets to visit Bowes at – of course the link will be in the show notes. Currently you choose a time slot for your entry time and the rooms are really spacious so social distancing isn’t going to be a problem. Of course, whenever you are listening to this I would recommend checking out the website anyway as guidance is changing at incredible speed at the moment so that’s where you will find the most up to date information. 

If you can’t visit at the moment and yet you still want to support the museum I would highly recommend investing in the book John And Joséphine Bowes: The Creation Of The Bowes Museum by Caroline Chapman which delves into their story in great detail and can be purchased from Bowes’ online gift shop. I’ll leave a link to that as well in the show notes.

If you enjoyed this episode please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast wherever you are listening to it now. It means the world to me and means that other romance and history lovers can find the podcast. Also if you enjoy my little curated corner of the internet, I now have a monthly newsletter which features exclusive content, more information on podcast episodes, book reviews and the very best history-based recommendations. So if you want that to be dropped into your inbox on the first Thursday of every month, I will leave a link in the show notes again where you can sign up.

And of course, if Past Loves has become your current love you will always find me over on Instagram @pastlovespodcast where I’ll be waiting to chat with you – until soon!

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