John Bowes (art collector)

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John Bowes (19 June 1811 London – 9 October 1885 Streatlam, co. Durham)[1] was an English art collector and thoroughbred racehorse owner who founded the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, Teesdale.

Bowes Museum

Family background[edit]

Born into the wealthy coal mining descendants of George Bowes, he was the child of John Bowes, 10th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne (1769–1820) and his mistress or common-law wife Mary Millner, later wife of Sir William Hutt. His paternal grandmother was Mary Bowes, Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne.

Because his parents were unmarried at the time of his birth,[2] he did not inherit the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne title. All sources describe Bowes as the fully and openly acknowledged son of the 10th Earl.[citation needed]

1820 legitimacy case[edit]

The shell of Gibside Hall

His parents married at St George's, Hanover Square on 2 July 1820, with Lord Barnard, heir to the Earl of Darlington, as witness. 16 hours later, his father died.

Bowes's legitimacy was questioned by the 10th Earl's next surviving brother Thomas Bowes, who claimed the earldom and estates for himself. The Scottish courts agreed that the 1820 marriage had taken place, and that it had been between two unmarried persons. However, since his parents were not domiciled in Scotland (the crucial point of the uncle's challenge), he was not legitimated in Scotland.[3] The result was to make John Bowes officially illegitimate under English and Scottish law, which status came to matter more and more in the Victorian mores already coming into effect. A five-year battle ensued over the estates, with the English estates going to John and the Scottish estates going to his uncle, the 11th Earl.

Bowes was raised at Gibside by his mother, now Dowager Countess of Strathmore. In 1831, she married his tutor William Hutt (1791–1882) as his first wife.

Subsequent career[edit]

Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge,[4] John Bowes pursued an interest in theatre, art, and horse racing. A member of the Jockey Club, he owned Streatlam Stud that bred and raised racehorses at Streatlam and Gibside. His stable won the 2,000 Guineas Stakes three times, The Derby four times, and, in capturing the English Triple Crown with West Australian, won the 1853 St. Leger Stakes.[5]

Bowes was a reformer in politics, in favour of triennial Parliaments and the removal of Bishops from the House of Lords. He was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament, for the South Durham constituency, between 1832 and 1847. He also served as High Sheriff of Durham in 1852.

As one of the largest landowners in England, he developed a number of business interests, initially concerning his extensive coal mine holdings. Charles Mark Palmer managed his collieries at Marley Hill and later opened the Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company at Jarrow, in which Bowes was a partner.[5] The first major vessel built was the pioneer iron steam collier John Bowes.[5]


Bowes left England for France, allegedly because he was not fully welcome in Victorian society as a person of illegitimate birth. While in Paris, France, John Bowes met the actress Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevallier (1825–1874), daughter of a clockmaker, a woman passionate about painting and collecting.[6] She apparently became his mistress, and they married in 1852. For a time, the couple made their home at the Château du Barry in Louveciennes near Paris. They shared a passion for art and acquired a large collection that would ultimately be housed in the Bowes Museum. In 1868, she became Countess of Montalbo, San Marino.[7] Unfortunately both died before their museum project was completed, Josephine having died in 1874. She had no issue, and was buried at Gibside.[8]

Foundation of the Bowes Museum[edit]

Joséphine officially laid the foundation stone of the museum on 27 November 1869, but she was apparently too ill to do so physically, and merely touched it with a trowel.

The story of John Bowes is told in the book John Bowes and the Bowes Museum by Charles E Hardy. The book itself has an interesting[to whom?] history. It was first published by the renowned Newcastle upon Tyne publisher Frank Graham in 1970. The second printing in 1978 was again published by Frank Graham, but two subsequent editions, 1982 and 1989, were published by The Friends of Bowes Museum.

Second marriage and death[edit]

In 1877 (marriage settlement 24 July 1877), Bowes remarried one Alphonsine Maria St. Amand, divorced wife of the Comte de Courten.[9] The second marriage did not turn out well, and it appears that John Bowes was attempting to obtain a divorce from his wife from March to May 1884. Indeed, it was subsequently reported to have been legally severed in May 1885.[5] Alphonsine may have been mother of the Italian artist Angelo de Courten (1848–1925).[10]

Bowes died childless in October 1885 at Streatlam, and was interred next to his first wife at Gibside. It had been intended that they would be reinterred in a Catholic chapel at the Bowes Museum, but this was never completed.[5][8]

Will, bequests, and legacy[edit]

Bowes's will, proven on 28 November 1885, disclosed his immense personal estate to be worth £371,725 1s. 0d (equivalent to £42,716,751 in 2021[11]).[12] He left his wife Alphonsine an annuity of £3000 for life, as well as £20,000.[13] Substantial sums were left to his curator Amelie Basset,[14] and to his three named godchildren. The remainder of his estate, not entailed, was largely devised to the trustees of his first wife's will (registered 1875) for the purposes of setting up the Museum.

By the terms of his father's entailment, his English properties reverted to his legitimate cousins upon his death. Streatlam Castle was eventually sold by the family in 1922 on the eve of the wedding of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon to the Duke of York, allegedly to pay for the costs of the wedding. It passed through many hands, and was demolished by its new owner Philip Ivan Pease in 1959, but the Pease family retains the lands till date. The Gibside estate is now owned by the National Trust.

John Bowes is best remembered today as the founder of the Bowes Museum, which has been described as the Wallace Collection of the North.[15]


  1. ^ Chilvers, Ian (3 September 2009) [1st. Pub. 1990]. The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists. Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP: Oxford University Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-19-953294-0.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  2. ^ According to Augustus Hare, Strathmore went through a secret and false ceremony of marriage with Mary Millner to persuade her to live with him, and only revealed on his deathbed (in 1820) that he had never actually married her. Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act (1753) made common-law marriages legally invalid for the first time in British history; thus by English law, Strathmore and Millner were never married. If the pair had been domiciled in Scotland, the fact that Strathmore and Millner had lived together as man and wife would have been sufficient to establish a marriage. Hare claims that young John Bowes was enrolled at Eton as Lord Glamis.
  3. ^ Scottish private law on legitimation by subsequent marriage, which was based on Roman law, required that the parties be free to marry at the time of their child's birth (which condition was fulfilled), and that the parties be domiciled in Scotland (which condition was not fulfilled). Since then, Scottish law on legitimation has been changed by the Legitimation (Scotland) Act 1968. This law would now permit even children born to adulterous parents who subsequently marry to be legitimated; see the case of Drumlanrig in 1973.
  4. ^ "Bowes, John Bowes (BWS828JB)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  5. ^ a b c d e "Death of Mr John Bowes" (PDF). The Teesdale Mercury. 14 October 1885. p. [5]. Retrieved 26 April 2013.
  6. ^ Chapman, Caroline (1 May 2010). John and Josephine: the Creation of the Bowes Museum (PDF). Barnard Castle, County Durham DL12 8NP: The Bowes Museum. ISBN 978-0-9548182-96. Retrieved 13 October 2013.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  7. ^ Chapman, Caroline (1 May 2010). John and Josephine: the Creation of the Bowes Museum (PDF). Barnard Castle, County Durham DL12 8NP: The Bowes Museum. p. 103. ISBN 978-0-9548182-96. Retrieved 13 October 2013. In 1868 Joséphine became the Countess of Montalbo, a title created for her by the Republic of San Marino. This title can only have been 'bought' for her by John, and his reasons for doing so are baffling. Was it at Joséphine's request? Or was it John's instigation from a desire for her to have a crest and coat of arms to match his own? (/para) As John himself was the most unpretentious of men, it is tempting to assume that it was Joséphine who entertained illusions de grandeur.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  8. ^ a b "Bowes and Strathmores". Sunniside and District Local History Society. Retrieved 26 April 2013.
  9. ^ Durham Country records: Ref D/HH 5/1/105.
  10. ^ Durham County Records: Strathmore Estate letters from Alphonsine Bowes to the Earl of Strathmore. She was preparing to leave Biarritz for London, presumably to answer charges brought against her.
  11. ^ UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 11 June 2022.
  12. ^ "The Right Honourable William Thomas Spencer Earl". UK Government. 1885. Retrieved 25 November 2021.
  13. ^ Durham County records: Ref D/HH 5/1/96
  14. ^ Some websites give her name as Amelie Basset, the daughter of his old dealer friend who had died the same year as Josephine. He had known her since she was twelve years old. The Bowes Museum[permanent dead link] says that she inherited her father's business and

    in 1875 (one year after the death of Joséphine) John Bowes asked her to look after the Collection that was to be housed at the Bowes Museum in England. Amélie was responsible for the cleaning and repair of all the paintings in store, and supervising everything in the Temporary Gallery in France before organising the shipment of cases to Barnard Castle. Her important role was reflected in John's will when he died: he left her £9000 [sic]!

    Amelie was therefore Bowes's Curator and one of the beneficiaries of his will, but not his second wife (as stated by some online sources). This is confirmed by the Durham County records which summarise the will dated 1878, where Amelie Basset, picture dealer, of 7 Rue Mansart, Paris, is left £5,000 (contradicting the Bowes Museum statement of £9000).
  15. ^ Chilvers, Ian (3 September 2009) [1st. Pub. 1990]. The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists. Great Claredon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP: Oxford University Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-19-953294-0.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link) The comparison might be deliberate; both men were the acknowledged sons of their fathers, wealthy peers; both lived in France for a considerable period; both married French wives, who had been previously their mistresses.


External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
New constituency Member for South Durham
With: Joseph Pease 1832–41
Lord Harry George Vane 1841–47
Succeeded by