1811 – 1885
Politician, Socialite and Art Connoisseur
John Bowes was an art collector and racehorse owner who founded the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, Teesdale. He was the son of John Lyon-Bowes, 10th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne (1769–1820). He was educated first at Eton and then at Trinity College, Cambridge. His father died in 1820, but he did not inherit his father’s title because his parents were unmarried at the time and therefore his younger brother claimed the Earldom. A legal battle between the two brothers led to the family’s estate being split between them with his younger brother retaining the title. John secured Gibside Hall in the Derwent Valley and Streatlam Castle close by in County Durham, whilst his brother retained Glamis Castle in Forfarshire, Scotland. Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather was Claude Bowes-Lyon, the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne.
In 1852 John married the French actress Josephine Benoîte Coffin-Chevalier (1825 – 1874) who was working in Paris at the Théatre des Variétés, which he owned. In the 1860s the couple returned to the UK and begun their life work, the creation of the Bowes Museum. Construction started in 1868 but was not completed until 1892. The building itself was, and still is, out of keeping with the small provincial northern town where it sits. The building is a prime example of Georgian architecture and, equally, inside it is home to a multitude of historically significant objects. Between 1862 and 1874, John and Josephine purchased 15,000 objects for the museum and today it houses internationally significant works of art including paintings by Goya and Canaletto. On his death, Bowes left the vast majority of his estate to the museum.
Bowes was a Liberal politician for South Durham, serving the constituency between 1832 and 1847. He also served as High Sheriff of Durham in 1852. Gibside Hall was passed on to the National Trust in 1963. Some of the buildings on the estate are currently being restored by the Landmark Trust which received £1,582,600 of Lottery funding in 1999 to do so. Gibside is one of the fastest growing National Trust properties in the North East in terms of visitor numbers.