The doors of Durham’s historic attractions may be closed at the moment, but with our Durham Discoveries blog series, you can go behind the closed doors and get a close up look at the fascinating collections and exhibitions housed within them. And hopefully inspire you to add these amazing attractions to your 'must-visit' list for a future visit to Durham. 

two little boys sitting looking at the exterior of The Bowes Museum

A beautiful building, inside and out! 

A jewel in the heart of the Durham Dales, The Bowes Museum in the pretty market town of Barnard Castle, Teesdale was opened to the public in 1892.

Named after its founders, the businessman and son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore, John Bowes and his French wife Joséphine, its creation is truly a wonderful love story. 

The couple met when John bought the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris, where Joséphine worked as an actress. Devoted to each other, they decided to share their passion for art with the people of the area they loved, Teesdale - John’s family home was Streatlam Castle, not far from the museum.

Designed by French architects in the style of a magnificent French château, it was the first building built using the metric system in England but sadly neither John nor Joséphine saw it completed.

Ceramic yellow cats and a pink teapot with peacock feather decoration

Ceramics Galleries 

When you step inside the museum’s ceramics gallery you are greeted with warm, welcoming smiles from these cheeky ceramic cats. They were made by the man credited with creating the French Art Nouveau movement, Emile Gallé, who was also a good friend of the museum’s founder Joséphine.

Standing less than 10cm high, this pretty pink Sevres teapot caused a stir in the museum's LEGO® exhibition 2 years ago. Covered with beautifully accurate paintings of peacock feathers, could you imagine it being used at a tea party in 1758 when it was made?

Pink ball gown on display in Bowes Museum and painting of Joséphine Bowes

Fashion and Textile Gallery

The historical costumier, Luca Costigliolo, wowed visitors when he recreated this stunning pink silk ball dress, that Joséphine is shown wearing in a painting above a mirror. He created the amazing costume in the Museum’s jubilee room under the gaze of visitors. You can watch snippets of him working on it online >

The Silver Swan automaton at The Bowes Museum

The Silver Swan  

No trip to The Bowes Museum would be complete without seeing the sensational Silver Swan automaton. She’s based on a life size model of a mute female swan and dates back to 1773, making her two years older than American, as the declaration of US Independence was created in 1776. 

She has 700 major components and several thousand in her whole.

  • John and Joséphine bought her from a jewellers in Paris for £200
  • She is controlled by three separate clockwork mechanisms, each control the music, the glass rods and the head, neck and fish movements.
  • She plays six different tunes.
  • Each performance is just 42 seconds long.
  • She weighs 25 – 30 kilos.

Golden clockwork life-size mouse automaton at The Bowes Museum

The golden clockwork mouse 

This gold and pearl encrusted mechanical mouse can be wound up to scurry around and it was bought in London as a 60th birthday present from Joséphine to John. His pet name for her was ‘Puss’, so we can only imagine the gales of laughter when John’s ‘Puss’ presented him with a mouse! 

The Château du Barry at Louveciennes painting by Joséphine Bowes

Fine Art collection 

Besides stunning paintings by renowned masters including Canaletto, El Greco, Goya and Van Dyck, the Fine Art collection is fortunate to have mesmerising works by Joséphine, who was an accomplished artist in her own right.

She painted this work, The Château du Barry at Louveciennes, which was the house John bought her as a wedding present. In 1862 the Bowes’ sold the château and invested the money in building The Bowes Museum. Some say that this painting also contains a self-portrait of her, as the female figure in the foreground. 

strippy quilt made by Hannah Hauxwell’s grandmother on display at The Bowes Museum

New exhibitions

Another highlight is a relatively new addition to the collection. This charming strippy quilt made by Hannah Hauxwell’s grandmother – that’s going to feature in North Country Quilts - In Celebration of New Acquisitions when the museum reopens. Hannah Hauxwell came to the nation’s attention in the 1970s when she was filmed for ITV working alone on her remote Upper Teesdale farm with no running water or electricity.

marble rhino

This cute marble rhinoceros is thought to be an image of Clara, an Indian rhinoceros brought to Europe in 1741 by the Dutch sea captain Douwemout Van der Meer, who toured with her causing a sensation across the continent.


She inspired painters, writers, poets and sculptures, just like our own, and you’ll be able to find out how she lived as her story is intertwined with different items in the collection for this year’s summer exhibition - The Adventures of Clara.

Painting of Clara the Rhino (CR Rhinoceros image courtesy of R. Michelson Galleries)

CR Rhinoceros image courtesy of R. Michelson Galleries

The Bowes Museum can't wait to welcome you back this spring, in the meantime you can enjoy the museum's collection and events from the comfort of your own home by watching virtual tours, exhibitions and activities online >


The Bowes Museum
The Bowes Museum 
Rainbow, Grounds, Blue Skies

An iconic building and Museum set in the vibrant market town of Barnard Castle in the midst of Teesdale, housing outstanding collections of European fine and decorative art.

Café Bowes at The Bowes Museum
The Bowes Museum cafe

With Cafe Bowes' spacious dining room and wonderful views over the gardens and countryside you can relax, unwind and enjoy the delights of the menu.



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