In an occasional column, Dorothy Blundell reflects on the opening of the Bowes Museum where she volunteers
standfirst goes something like AFTER 30 years of planning and building, today was the day the doors would open. And what a party it was going to be: the whole of Barnard Castle on holiday, all the main streets decked out in color – flags waving and lovely roadside flower arrangements.
Never before had there 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 “pretty good” and from early morning the streets were crowded with visitors, some of whom arrived on special excursion trains. Teesdale Mercury’s account was voluminous, devoting thousands of words to describing the colorful scene, listing those present, reporting speeches and toasts verbatim.
“There is probably no finer building in the provinces than the Bowes Museum,” said the report, “if there is a finer one in the metropolis, and the good people of the neighborhood have rightly been impressed by the significance of the occasion.
“Never since the founding of the town of Barnard Castle in the 12th century by Bernard Baliol…has such an important and interesting event taken place within our borders.
“There were banners waving from the windows, rows of tiny pennants stretched across the roads, swags of paper roses in prominent places and scrolls bearing inscriptions of welcome and congratulations. The outer walls of the houses were decorated with green branches and fresh flowers and looked extremely pretty.
The entrance to the station was attractively accented with beds of ferns and other plants, and along Galgate, Market Place, Bank and Newgate were (decorated) Venetian flagpoles.
That this was a big deal for Barnard Castle was beyond doubt. But the “why?” has not been addressed. Why build a 17th century style French palace in the middle of Teesdale? What were the founders, John and Josephine Bowes thinking?
Neither was there to ask. Josephine had died 18 years earlier, just days after the last frame was laid, and John had died almost seven years earlier.
At least he had lived long enough to appoint the first two curators and see how they began the enormous task of unpacking the hundreds of boxes of carefully wrapped objects and paintings.
So was the couple’s motivation to leave a legacy, to uplift the souls of the working classes, or because of a sense of philanthropy expected from John’s wealthy status?
Maybe it was a bit of all three. There are documents in the museum archives that offer a small glimpse of their inspiration: they had noted the color of the walls and the framing techniques of the Louvre, the skylights and the picture galleries connected by arcades of the Alte Pinakothek (art museum) in Munich and architectural elements of the destroyed Tuileries Palace.
In 1917, the Newcastle Chronicle said: ‘The building is to the sturdy market town of Barnard Castle what a wedding cake is to a buffet of Scotch eggs and crisps. Architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner said it was “grand, bold and incongruous, looking exactly like the town hall of a large provincial town in France”. In fact, according to curator Owen Scott, the initial idea was to locate the museum in France.
In Handbook to The Bowes Museum, published in 1893, a book he wrote: “They abandoned this in view of the continuing unstable state of politics in France.
They thought there was less chance of revolutions occurring, in which works of art might be harmed, in England.
They ultimately chose Barnard Castle, as being a town with which Mr. Bowes’ ancestors had been linked for many centuries, and the nearest place of importance to Streatlam Castle.
Back in 1892 and on this historic day, at 11:30 a.m. there was a procession through the city, made up of representatives of all the city’s public bodies and other groups, as well as hundreds of school children, 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 route was abundantly lined with onlookers and, at the gates of the museum, the procession passed between the ranks of a guard of honor made up of the 2nd DLI battalion.
The terrace and park were teeming with about 4,000 people. The speakers and other personalities were grouped on the entrance steps of the building. Of the handful of people who had been present at the private ceremony, in November 1869, to lay the foundation stone, only one survivor – the builder, Joseph Kyle, was there.
Sir Joseph Pease, MP, son of Bowes’ friend and former parliamentary colleague, declared the building open.
He read Josephine’s will and greeted her: “I ask and adjure the people of Barnard Castle with one accord to assist the committee as much as possible in keeping this museum, the contents of which have taken so many my time and pain in gathering and gathering in this park.
Sir Joseph added his own thoughts: “I consider that today we have opened to the public an inestimable boon… leading people’s minds from those things which are gross, creeping and dying, to those things which are lofty in art, which elevate the human spirit…”
Then, amid tumultuous cheers and the waving of hats, the 17-foot-tall massive iron entrance gates were thrown open and for the rest of the day thousands of curious visitors entered the building. inside, eager to see for themselves the treasures they contained. Elsewhere in town, at the King’s Head Hotel, there was a public luncheon presided over by the 13th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, a cousin of John Bowes.
The Mercury reported: ‘Sir Joseph proposed that they drink in solemn silence in memory of the late Mr. and Mrs. Bowes. Mr John Grieveson of Galgate very admirably proposed the toast to the Board of Directors and was quite confident that things would now go off without a hitch.
Mr. Scott, in his museum handbook, echoed this sentiment: “The museum has not yet overcome all its difficulties, but it has done so far as to justify good hopes for the future.”
Six years after the dizzying excitement of that opening day, the museum closed for lack of funds – a situation not helped by the discovery of wet and dry rot that forced all oak beams to be replaced with steel beams.
The museum finally reopened in 1909, but other financial problems were to follow over the years.
And so on until 2022. There were many hiccups along the way, but the museum held its own.
And while there may be no evidence of tumultuous cheering and waving of hats to mark its 130th anniversary, and while there will always be more hardships to overcome, we should all be filled with hope for the future of the museum and the next 130 years. .