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A French Chateau in County Durham
The Bowes Museum (Barnard Castle)
Member Name: collingwood21
The Bowes Museum (Barnard Castle)
Date: 30/10/01, updated on 30/10/01 (215 review reads)
Advantages: Amazing building and collections, Excellent cafe, Beautiful setting
Disadvantages: Remote location, Some labels not easy to read
The Bowes Museum is really quite astonishing - a replica French Chateau, purpose built as a museum in the nineteenth century, set in the middle of the rural north east of England. It is certainly a surreal experience, to be driving through a small market town in Teesdale, and suddenly to be confronted with such a palatial structure housing one of the most important British collections of European fine art outside of London. Definitely not what you would expect in your average provincial museum!
The Bowes Museum is to be found at Barnard Castle, in the south of County Durham, a small town otherwise dominated by the ruined castle that gives the place its name. It can be reached quite easily from elsewhere in the county, from North Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear (it takes about an hour from Newcastle) by road, but it is essentially somewhere you need a car to visit as the rural location does not lend itself to good public transport. Free car parking is available on site, and both the town and the castle are just a few minutes walk away if you want to have a look around during your visit.
The museum is the legacy of John Bowes (the son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore) and his wife Josephine - the couple owned estates in Durham and France in the nineteenth century, the latter of which they sold to pay for the construction of the museum. It has been speculated that this was to fill the gap in their lives left by them being childless, and also to carry on the Bowes name in the area. There was, in addition, a philanthropic motive though, as they sought to provide an educational establishment for ordinary people to experience their growing art collections from around Europe. The building finally opened in 1892, sadly after both the museum's founders had died.
● The collections
While a huge array of European fine arts are represented at the museum, there is a predominance of French examples -
John and Josephine together amassed a chronological collection of paintings, furniture, tapestries and ceramics. Rooms on the first and second floors are crammed with bed, tables, musical instruments, bookcases, sofas, chairs, fine paintings; in fact virtually every imaginable type of decorative art from France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The styles on show are also diverse, from Rococo to Louis XVI to imitation Chinese.
Along side the French collections are examples from Britain and other European countries, including a set of paintings by Josephine herself. The English art section has largely been amassed by the trustees of the museum in the time since John's death, and are now to be found in a number of period rooms, which were reconstructed from panelling rescued from other houses. Examples of Italian paintings (including a Canaletto), together with Spanish, Dutch and Flemish works can also be found in the Bowes Museum. Perhaps the most famous exhibit, now the inspiration for the new Bowes corporate logo, is the silver automaton swan, to be found in the Spanish gallery on the first floor. Twice daily the mechanism is put in motion by the staff (at 2pm and 4pm) to demonstrate to visitors this beautiful piece of eighteenth century workmanship.
The ground floor of the museum is taken up by the local history, prehistory and Roman collections, with some Saxon and Medieval pieces included too. These were collected by the Bowes more for curio values than any attempt at serious displays, but recently have been expanded by the trustees to become one of the principle repositories of archaeological remains in county Durham. Several major excavations are represented here, including those from Barnard Castle itself and Binchester Roman fort.
● Facilities available
- Free car parking
- Easy access to the majority of the museum for those in wheelchairs
- Gift shop
- Café Bowes, a really excellent re
- Education service for local schools
- Guided tours by Friends of the Museum
- Personal lockers for coats and bags
- Sound guide
- Introductory film
- Free use of museum grounds
● My experience
I visited the Bowes Museum out of the main season, in late October - this meant that it was very quiet and virtually empty, bar a small school group being shown around. This is definitely a good time to experience the museum, although be warned that a building of such size is very expensive to heat and so remains rather chilly; my advice is to wear warm clothes if you go in autumn or winter!
This is certainly a unique experience and you do encounter an awful lot of wonderful material in the museum, including some really rather good temporary exhibitions (check with the museum for details; see below). I do have to nitpick about it a bit though; sorry! Firstly, there is no consistency with the presentations of the labels, which all depend on which curator did them and when - this means that some rooms are really well done, while others frankly are not. As I visited as past of my museums course though, I was treated to a short talk on the matter by the exhibitions officer; there is a programme underway to standardize and improve all labelling although it could be some time before this is implemented. Secondly that the lighting in some rooms is really not good to appreciate the artefacts, and thirdly that the café (while excellent) was a little pricey.
Try to allow a full day to see everything in the museum, and do not miss the working of the mechanical swan at 2pm or 4pm.
● Other points
Opening - daily, 11am to 5pm
Entry price - adults £4, concessions £3, children under 5 free
Contact - The Bowes Museum
Internet - www.bowesmuseum.org.uk
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