The famous museum celebrates its 130th anniversary – features

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TAKE A BREAK: A group of workers pose in front of the museum’s front doors circa 1905 (probably around the time the rotting oak beams were replaced with steel beams).

In an occasional column, Dorothy Blundell looks back at the opening of the Bowes Museum, where she volunteers

standfirst goes something like this: AFTER 30 years of planning and construction, today was the day on which the doors would open. And what a party it was going to be: all of Barnard Castle on holiday, all the main streets decked out in colour—flags fluttering and roadside flower arrangements look beautiful.

There has never been a better reason for the whole town to celebrate than now – June 10, 1892… the first day of the Bowes Museum.

The weather was “unfortunately good” and already in the early hours of the morning the streets were filled with visitors, some of whom were arriving on special trains. The Teesdale Mercury Report was extensive, devoting thousands of words to describing the colorful scene, listing who was present, giving verbatim accounts of the speeches and the toasts.

“There is probably no finer building in the provinces than the Bowes Museum,” says the report, “if indeed there is a finer one in the metropolis, and the good folk of the neighborhood were rightly struck by the importance of the occasion.”

“Since the founding of the town of Barnard Castle in the 12th century by Bernard Baliol … not such an important and interesting event has taken place within our borders.

“Banners waved from the windows, rows of tiny pennants stretched across the streets, garlands of paper roses were prominently placed, and scrolls inscribed with words of welcome and congratulations. The outer walls of the houses were adorned with green branches and fresh flowers and were exceedingly pretty.

The station entrance was charmingly contrasted with fern benches and other plants, and Venetian (decorated) masts lined Galgate, Market Place, The Bank and Newgate.”

There was no question that this was a big deal for Barnard Castle. But the “why?” was not addressed. Why build a 17th century style French palace in the middle of Teesdale? What were the founders, John and Joséphine Bowes, thinking?

Nobody was there to ask. Joséphine had died 18 years earlier, just days after the last timber was set, and John had died nearly seven years earlier.

At least he had lived long enough to appoint the first two curators and see them begin the daunting task of unpacking the hundreds of boxes of carefully packed objects and paintings.

So was the couple’s motivation to leave a legacy, to uplift the souls of the working class, or because of a sense of philanthropy expected of John’s affluent status?

Maybe it was a bit of all three. There are documents in the museum archives that give a glimpse of their inspiration: they had noted wall colors and picture-framing techniques of the Louvre, skylights and picture galleries connected by archways of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich (art museum), and architectural elements from the museum that destroyed the Tuileries Palace.

In 1917 the Newcastle Chronicle wrote: “The building is to the solid market town of Barnard Castle what a wedding cake is to a Scotch egg and chip buffet.” the town hall of a large provincial town in France”. According to curator Owen Scott, the original idea was actually to locate the museum in France.

In his 1893 book Handbook to The Bowes Museum he writes: ‘They abandoned this in order to take account of the constantly troubled political situation in France.

They thought it was less likely to see revolutions in England that could damage the works of art.

They finally settled on Barnard Castle as a town with which Mr Bowes’ ancestors had been associated for many centuries and as the closest important site to Streatlam Castle.”

On that historic day in 1892 there was a procession through the town at 11.30am, made up of representatives from all the town’s public bodies and other groups, as well as hundreds of schoolchildren, all led by the band of the 3rd Battalion Durham Light Infantry.

The band performed The Battle of Magenta, Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still and Old Memories. The path was thickly lined with onlookers and at the gates of the museum the procession passed through the ranks of an honor guard consisting of the 2nd Battalion DLI.

An estimated 4,000 people swarmed on the terrace and in the park. Speakers and other VIPs were grouped on the front steps of the building. Of the handful of people present at the private groundbreaking ceremony in November 1869, only one survivor—master builder Joseph Kyle—was present.

Sir Joseph Pease, MP, son of Bowes’ friend and former MP, declared the building open.

He read from Josephine’s will and commended her words: “I request and unanimously implore the residents of Barnard Castle to assist the committee as far as possible in the guarding of this museum, the contents of which have taken so much time and trouble, to gather and bring together in this park.”

Sir Joseph added his own thoughts: “I think we have opened up an invaluable boon to the public today…in turning people’s minds from the things that are icky and crawling and dying to the things that are high in art, that exalt the human mind…”

Then, amid thunderous cheers and hat waving, the 17 foot high solid iron front doors were thrown wide open and for the rest of the day thousands of curious visitors poured in, eager to see the treasures within with their own eyes. Elsewhere in town, at the King’s Head Hotel, a public luncheon was held, presided over by the 13th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, a cousin of John Bowes.

The Mercury reported: ‘Sir Joseph proposed drinking to the memory of Mr and Mrs Bowes in solemn silence. Mr. John Grieveson of Galgate offered the toast to the Board of Trustees most admirably and was quite confident that things would now run smoothly.”

Mr. Scott repeated the opinion in his Museum Handbook: “The Museum has not yet overcome all its difficulties, but it has so far done to justify good hopes for the future.”

Six years after the dizzying excitement of that opening day, the museum was closed for lack of funds – a situation not improved by the discovery of dry rot and dry rot, which resulted in all the oak beams having to be replaced with steel girders.

The museum eventually reopened in 1909, but more financial troubles were to follow over the years.

And so until 2022. There were many hurdles along the way, but the museum will endure.

And even if there is no sign of rapturous cheering and waving of hats on its 130th anniversary and there are always new difficulties to be overcome, we should all be filled with good hope for the future of the museum and the next 130 years.

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