Creating The Bowes Museum: A PhD Project

This introduction seems quite overdue, but I am Simon Spier, an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded PhD researcher based at The Bowes Museum and the University of Leeds. I am now seven months into my three-year project, so it seems like a good chance to not only outline the motives and ambitions for my PhD but also reflect on progress so far.

Firstly, it is worth explaining that my project sits within a wider constellation of research projects under the umbrella of the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme (CDP). This network – funded by the AHRC – links universities with cultural and heritage institutions and aims to be of benefit to both collaborators by producing research with a wide range of outputs. So aside from an academic thesis my research might inform and produce visual exhibitions and displays, lectures, tours, blog posts or any form of digital content that is accessible to everyone. These types of project are also of benefit to doctoral students like me as well, as they provide practical experience that is relevant outside of an academic environment.

So this forms the background to my own project, which is called ‘Creating The Bowes Museum: Private collecting, public philanthropy and the art market in the public art museum in Britain and France, 1830-1900’. I am supervised by an academic from the University of Leeds, Dr Mark Westgarth, and two curators at The Bowes Museum, Dr Jane Whittaker and Dr Howard Coutts. With their help, I am building up a context for the formation of the core collection at The Bowes – by that I mean the artworks and objects bought by the founders John and Joséphine Bowes – within a number of different areas of historical enquiry. So far I have divided these trawls through history into three ‘themes’ that can be described as follows:

Forming the Collection:

This first area of enquiry will aim to uncover more about the activity of John and Joséphine in amassing fine and decorative art as a private collection. For example, I have begun looking into their engagement with artists, dealers, auctioneers, collectors and tastemakers in Paris and England. By uncovering more about the broader social and cultural networks the Bowes’ moved within – with a particular focus on their relationship with the nineteenth-century art market – I can begin to draw out what distinguishes The Bowes Museum collection from (or aligns it with) other, similar nineteenth century private and public art collections.

So far, to do this, I have been examining the hundreds of bills John and Joséphine fastidiously kept from whenever they purchased items. These documents often reveal whether they patronised particular artists or dealers, if they attended fashionable auctions with other collectors of the day, and what they were buying to put in their own homes. Quite straightforward, but the focus sharpens when these activities are compared to the debates concerning the acquisition of art and dissemination of art-historical knowledge in the large public art galleries founded in the mid-nineteenth century. A large goal of this section is to shed more light on the inter-dependence of the so-called ‘private’ spheres of the art dealer and collector, and the public museum.

Bill from the Bowes’ regular art dealer Mme Lepautre written on a torn-out page from an auction sale catalogue, 1866
Bill from the Bowes’ regular art dealer Mme Lepautre written on a torn-out page from an auction sale catalogue, 1866


Reverse of Bill from the Bowes’ regular art dealer Mme Lepautre written on a torn-out page from an auction sale catalogue, 1866
Reverse of Bill from the Bowes’ regular art dealer Mme Lepautre written on a torn-out page from an auction sale catalogue, 1866

Housing the Collection:

Perhaps the most distinctive thing about this extraordinary collection is the huge French Renaissance style building in which it is displayed. I hope to devote a large proportion of my research discovering more about the significance of the Bowes’ choice to present their museum in this way. Many documents survive describing the museum building process and these provide interesting clues as to what their inspirations were: the wall colour and picture framing techniques of the Louvre, the top lighting in Munich’s Pinakothek, architectural elements from the destroyed Tuileries Palace… However, the real question is why they chose these particular models and what the context was for creating a public space for their private collection in rural Teesdale. Was it the Victorian desire to elevate the taste of the working classes; the social status that is part and parcel of widely acknowledged philanthropy; or simply a memorial to cement their own legacy? Or all three?

Illustration of the museum from The Builder, 1871
Illustration of the museum from The Builder, 1871

Organising the Collection:

This final section will aim to really crystallise the transformation of John and Joséphine’s collection from private accumulation to public institution by exploring the way it was displayed. I have so far been tracking objects from when they were purchased in Paris, to when they were packed up and sent by boat and railway to the Bowes’ stately pile Streatlam Castle, to when they were transported the short journey to the museum, unboxed and arranged. This involves a fair amount of conjecture as neither John nor Joséphine lived to see the museum open in 1892, and this is when we get the first real description of its interior from early guidebooks, but this process is revealing of how the Bowes’ thought about their objects in distinct groups and possibly how they wished for them to be perceived by visitors. By overlaying comparable display methods and theories of the mid-to late-nineteenth century public and private collections – such as that of the South Kensington Museum, The Wallace Collection, The Musée Jacquemart-André – depth can be added to the surviving archival material regarding the museum’s place in the history of collecting, taste and the public art institution.

Photograph of ‘The Sevrés Room’ c.1896
Photograph of ‘The Sevrés Room’ c.1896

I hope that this brief(!) introduction has given an insight into my research so far and not betrayed the fact that at this early stage my ideas and research patterns are still quite abstract and unrefined. It just remains to say that so far I have been having a fantastic time working with staff and the collections and The Bowes – not to mention the many knowledgeable volunteers who know the museum and its history as well as I could only hope to! If there are any readers out there who would like to get in touch to discuss anything Bowes-related, or nineteenth century private collecting, public museums, taste or culture in general – please do! I would be delighted to hear from you.

I am contactable on

More information on the CSAAM can be found here:

More information on the CDP scheme can be found here:

By Simon Spier, PhD Student

One thought on “Creating The Bowes Museum: A PhD Project

  1. The introduction to the blog did not, for me, open well. The description ‘ a wider constellation of research projects’ suggested an inaccurate use of words since a ‘constellation’ is a collection of stars and the word ‘collection’would have sufficed and been accurate. However, as I read on I became quite enthused by the project and really look forward to the revelations regarding the methods of art selection and purchase. I’m hoping for a steady stream of related blogs as the research continues, so good luck Simon with some intriguing investigation.


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