Insight Shorts

John and Josephine Bowes

Sep 28, 2022 | Insights

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The Bowes Museum exemplifies a legacy built on contribution and humility and the powerful reaction to rejection and adversity.
On Sunday, we stopped at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle on the way back from a weekend in the Lake District.

We couldn’t help noticing something different from the usual museum atmosphere as we walked around. The Bowes felt more friendly, more family and less institutional than most museums. The curators had thought carefully about how to display the objects. The rooms were spacious and light, and the staff friendly and helpful.

When we visited the two rooms set aside for the story of John and Joséphine Bowes, we began to understand why. Their lives blighted by rejection and illness, the Bowes built their museum to house their beautiful art collection and display it to anyone who wished to visit.

A reaction to rejection

John was an illegitimate child, and though his parents married on his father’s deathbed, he was never entirely accepted by Victorian society, which would have provided him with purpose and meaning. However, instead of making a fuss and grandstanding, it seems John decided to ignore what others thought of him and concentrate on duty. He was an MP for fifteen years until 1847 and became the High Sherrif of Durham in 1852.

John met Joséphine, an actress and artist, when he moved to France, by all accounts, to find a place that would accept him for the person he was and not reject him because of his birth. Joséphine was an avid collector and painter and shared John’s passion for art. But unfortunately, she was also frail and was ill for the latter part of her life.

However, they decided to make their collection available to all and built the Bowes Museum to house their fifteen thousand objects and paintings for the world to see. Construction of the Museum started in 1869. Sadly, both John and Joséphine died before its completion.

A monument to humility and contribution

One might have expected John Bowles to have used his wealth to make a statement, a reaction against the Victorian society that would not accept him. However, in her book on the creation of the Bowes Museum, Caroline Chapman describes John as “unpretentious”, and everything we know about John and Joséphine seems to indicate that the couple sank their wealth and collection into the project for the common good and not as an ego boost.

Despite its grandeur, the museum still reflects the sense of humility and contribution that motivated the Bowes to build the museum 150 years ago. We may not all end up as wealthy as John Bowes; however, he and Joséphine remain excellent role models for all those who want to create change, make a difference in the world and find meaning in their lives by doing so.

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