Designed in the manner of a French chateau, the museum is a homage to the personal history and tastes of its founders, John and Joséphine Bowes.
A wealthy businessman with a passion for the arts, John took frequent trips to France to explore his cultural interests. In 1847 he made the purchase of the Théatre des Variétés in Paris, where he met and fell in love with Joséphine who was working as an actress.
Joséphine was also a talented amateur painter, and her interests spanned a range of art forms including ceramics, furniture and textiles. Once the couple married in 1852 they developed the idea of creating a museum back in John’s ancestral home, hoping to bring their love of art to the local community.
In 1869 Joséphine laid the foundation stone of The Bowes and as the building grew, so did the collection – an astounding 15,000 objects were purchased between 1862 and 1874. After Joséphine's death, John virtually ceased collecting and the project stalled. Neither ever saw the building completed.
Development continued under the leadership of the trustees and The Bowes Museum finally opened to the public on 10 June 1892, attracting nearly 63,000 visitors in its first year.
In August 2014, the Museum ran a successful Art Happens crowdfunding campaign to conserve and redisplay their 15th-century Flemish alterpiece.
Described by Pevsner as 'gloriously inappropriate', the unusual building has, however, been widely embraced, not least on account of the treasures housed within. Covering the full gamut of European fine and decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, the museum contains collections of metalwork, textiles, ceramics and costumes.
The fine art galleries extend from the 15th to 19th centuries, expressing the personal taste of Joséphine, who was a talented amateur artist with an interest in French contemporary works. John's tastes are at work in the Italian galleries, among the Canalettos and Tiepolos, while the collection of Spanish paintings is the largest collection of Spanish art in Britain, including an El Greco and a Goya.
The Fashion and Textile gallery allows the museum to showcase its significant collection, from 20th-century haute couture to clothes belonging to Empress Eugénie, consort of Napoleon III, as well as quilts and contemporary textiles.
A French slant pervades the museum's furniture and ceramic holdings, which include some of the earliest examples of furniture decorated with Sèvres porcelain plaques, as well a large collection of faience and objects from the Royal Sèvres factory.
The 240 year-old Silver Swan is the best-loved object in the museum. An life-size English silver automaton, it was bought by the Bowes in 1872 and is operated at the museum on a daily basis.
In 2014 the museum ran a successful Art Happens crowdfunding campaign to fund the renovation of their magnificent 15th-century Flemish altarpiece, which is now on permanent display.