Friday, 2 June 2017

Joséphine Bowes: A woman of taste and influence...

Hello lovelies!

On Friday 19th May, I was kindly invited along to The Bowes Museum for the preview of their latest exhibition 'Joséphine Bowes: A Woman of Taste and Influence', a particularly special exhibition as the museum is celebrating its 125th year this year.  I've written many pieces about the museum and its exhibits over the last couple of years and in that time, I've grown particularly fond of Joséphine; she was French for a start (I love all things French!), was incredibly fashionable, a lover of art (artist and collector)-I'm sure should timings and backgrounds have aligned, we could've been wonderful friends!  But as she is sadly no longer with us, the best tribute that I can give her is to tell you all about her exhibition (and her extraordinary museum!) in hopes that you might make a visit.  I attended the preview which was excellent, but was so keen to get back and learn more about Joséphine, that I visited again just this week!

In tribute of her love of French fashion-I wore my favourite French blouse to the preview-I hope she would have approved!

I was first attracted to Joséphine because of her love of fashion; she always liked to look glamorous and spent copious amounts of money on clothes, but referring to her as a fashionista really is doing her a massive disservice as she was so much more than the sum of her clothes.  Starting out as an actress in Paris, she met her husband John Bowes in 1847 whilst he was living there (although he regularly visited England to keep abreast of his affairs; he was a wealthy landowner having inherited collieries and estates in County Durham following the death of his father, the 10th Earl of Strathmore).  They fell in love and were married in 1852; he gave her the nickname Puss.

 A portrait of Joséphine 

John Bowes

A mechanical mouse bought by Joséphine for John

John Bowes indulged Joséphine's love of fashion, regularly buying her clothes and fine jewellery.  Often dressed by Charles Frederick Worth, her favourite and leading couturier of the time and the dresser of Empress Eugénie of France, Joséphine often spent large sums of money on couture clothing and accessories, and although few portraits of her exist, those that do show that she had exquisite taste.

A recreation of the dress from Joséphine's portrait

As well as having amazing fashion sense and style, Joséphine was also very accomplished at choosing interiors for her home.  A woman with a keen eye for detail, she often employed the Parisian firm Monbro fils aîné to help her decorate and furnish salons across her and John's numerous properties (her salons were credited with being some of the most brilliant in Paris!).  There are various receipts from the Bowes' to Monbro on display in the exhibition which give a great insight into Joséphine's spending and to just how much having a stunning home meant to such an important lady with a new social standing.  Walking through the museum, there's also evidence of this in the recreation of some of the key rooms from her various homes.  A keen socialite and host, the Bowes' homes must have been stunning places to visit for soirees.

Probably the most important thing to learn about Joséphine was her love of the arts, because without this, The Bowes Museum would not be standing today.  She was an avid collector and a serious artist herself, having exhibited her own paintings in the Louvre at the annual Paris Salon four years in a row from 1867 to 1870.  In a time when art was dominated by men, this is a spectacular achievement and testament to her tenacity and forward thinking.  As well as her own art, Joséphine spent much time buying the work of many up and coming young French painters, potters and writers.  After spending years collecting, it was Joséphine that was the driving force behind the museum, as a way to share her collection and by the 1860s, the plan for the museum dominated the life of both her and John.  She was the dealer and negotiator for the acquisition of most of the Bowes' collection of art and its worth noting that the Silver Swan was acquired by the couple in 1873, for the bargain price of 5,000 francs (it had first exhibited at 50,000 francs); with the aesthetic appeal it still has today, it surely was worth every last franc!

A selection of Joséphine's own paintings
The fabulous Silver Swan
Joséphine was the driving force behind the museum

The foundation stone for the Museum was laid by Joséphine on 27th November 1869 and the saddest part of the Bowes' story for me is that neither she nor John got to see the Museum in its completion.  Joséphine had many recurring health problems, but her death in 1874 still came as a shock; she was aged just forty-eight.  John died in 1885, and their coffins rest side by side behind the Roman Catholic Church at the edge of the museum park, facing the museum.

Architectural sketches of the museum and the trowel which laid the first stone

Without even realising, Joséphine and John have given so much to the people of Barnard Castle.  The Bowes Museum is one of the most beautiful and unique buildings in the North of England and the exhibitions that it attracts are simply wonderful.  Joséphine was such an influential figure in bringing the museum to fruition and by wandering through its various galleries, its clear to see just how exquisite her taste was.  I'm so in awe of this wonderful lady and truly thankful to her for her vision.  A wonderful story of a couple deeply in love who were just as successful in their business dealings together as they were in their personal lives, they truly were a power couple of their time and one whose legacy will live on forever in this wonderful and beautiful building.

Thank you as always to the wonderful staff at the museum for allowing me to write this review and for inviting me to the preview.  'Joséphine Bowes: A woman of taste and influence' runs until July 16th, 2017.  For more information about visiting the museum, please visit their website here.



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