The first sight of the Bowes Museum is never forgotten. To say it is impressive is an understatement. Who would expect to find a French chateau in the North Pennines. It stands proud on the edge of the thriving market town of Barnard Castle.
If the outside is impressive, its contents are even more so. With ceramics, paintings, furniture, costumes and the glorious silver swan, there is something to appeal to everyone.
The building was specially built as a public art gallery by John and Josephine Bowes to house their collection. Unfortunately both died before it was finally opened in 1892. It is an outstanding legacy to their good taste and is still as popular as ever.
What everyone remembers about the museum is the Silver Swan, a musical automation dating from 1773. Plan your visit to be in the museum for 2pm when it is displayed. The preserve the increasingly fragile model, this is now only once a day and everyone gathers to watch. It is an unforgettable sight as the swan lowers her head to catch a small fish from the running water beneath her.
The fashion and textile galleries exhibit a wide range of fashions from the C17th to the 1960s, including wedding dresses. There are clothes from the Empress Eugenie, consort of Napoleon III who was a leader of fashion. All are carefully displayed so you can walk all round them and admire the workmanship.
The picture galleries cover European paintings from 15-19th centuries and include work by El Greco, Goya, Canaletto and Turner. This is one of the best collections outside London or Edinburgh.
The collection of ceramics is one of the most comprehensive in the UK and covers the period from 1700-1900. There is a lot of Meissen and Sevres china as well as from other manufacturers. Some of the cups and saucer sets are exquisite. There are also figurines and birds from English manufactures like Bow, Chelsea, Derby and Worcester.
The furnishing galleries include furniture belonging to Louis XIV, XV and XVI which were bought by John and Josephine. These are displayed in room settings, so this is the place to come if you want to tell the difference between neo-classsical and rococco. There are also room settings of English domestic interiors from the Tudor to Victorian times.
The John and Josephine Galleries include information about them and their collections. They also include examples of furniture from Château du Barry bought by John as a wedding present for Josephine and furnished in exuberant C18th revival taste.
Allow plenty of time for a visit as there is so much to see. There is also a shop and tea room. Entry is £9.50 or £8.50 for concessions. If wanting to make more than one visit, a pass giving free admission for six months is £14. Photographs are allowed but no flash.
There is a large car park round the back of the château with disabled bays. There is a grand flight of steps up to the main entrance. Disabled visitors can be dropped off at the entrance. Alternatively they can gain entry by the east door. This has an intercom pad to press to gain admission.
Carers are admitted free. The museum has a couple of wheelchairs for visitors use. It is advisable to prebook them.
All of the museum is accessible and there is a lift to the upper floors. There is plenty of room to manoeuvre a wheelchair around the galleries. There are plenty of seats for visitor’s use.
Assistance dogs are welcome and water bowl available from reception.
Large print information is available from Reception who have a gallery plan.
There are disabled toilets on the ground and first floors.