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John Bowes

John Bowes (19 June 1811 London - 9 October 1885 Streatlam, co. Durham)[1] was an English art collector and thoroughbred racehorse owner who founded the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, Teesdale. Born at Streatlam Castle[2] into the wealthy coal mining descendants of George Bowes, he was the child of John Lyon-Bowes, 10th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne (1769-1820) and his mistress or common-law wife Mary Milner, later wife of Sir William Hutt.


Illegitimate birth

Because his parents were unmarried at the time of his birth,[3] he did not inherit the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne title. All sources describe Bowes as the fully and openly acknowledged son of the 10th Earl.

1820 legitimacy case

His father married his mother openly 16 hours before his death, with Lord Barnard, heir to the Earl of Darlington, as their witness. The marriage was incontrovertible, but Bowes's legitimacy was questionable. The 10th Earl's next surviving brother Hon. Thomas Bowes claimed the earldom and estates on the grounds of young John's illegitimacy. The Scottish courts agreed that the 1820 marriage had taken place, and that it had been between two unmarried persons. However, since his parents were not domiciled in Scotland (the crucial point of the uncle's challenge), he was not legitimated in Scotland.[4] The result was to make John Bowes officially illegitimate under English and Scottish law, which status came to matter more and more in the Victorian mores already coming into effect. A five year battle ensued over the estates, with the English estates going to John and the Scottish estates going to his uncle, the 11th Earl.

Bowes was raised at Gibside by his mother, now Dowager Countess of Strathmore. In 1831, she married his tutor William Hutt(1791-1882) as his first wife.

Subsequent career

Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge,[5] John Bowes pursued an interest in theatre, art, and horse racing. A member of the Jockey Club, he owned Streatlam Stud that bred and raised racehorses at Streatlam and Gibside. His stable won the 2,000 Guineas three times, the Epsom Derby four times, and, in capturing the English Triple Crown with West Australian, won the 1853 St. Leger Stakes.

Bowes was a reformer in politics, in favour of triennial Parliaments and the removal of Bishops from the House of Lords. He was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament, for the South Durham constituency, between 1832 and 1847. He also served as Sheriff of County Durham in 1854.


Bowes left England for France, allegedly because he was not fully welcome in Victorian society as a person of illegitimate birth. While in Paris, France, John Bowes met the actress Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevalier (1825-1874),[6], daughter of a clockmaker, a woman passionate about painting and collecting.[7] She apparently became his mistress, but they married in 1852. For a time, the couple made their home at the Château du Barry in Louveciennes near Paris. They shared a passion for art and acquired a large collection that would ultimately be housed in the Bowes Museum. In 1868, she was made Countess of Montalbo.[8] Unfortunately both died before their museum project was completed. Josephine died in 1874 having had no issue.

Foundation of the Bowes Museum

The foundation stone was laid on the 27th of November, 1869, by Josephine Benoite, Countess of Montalbo, but she was apparently too ill to actually lay the foundation stone but merely touched it with a trowel.

The story of John Bowes is told in the book John Bowes and the Bowes Museum by Charles E Hardy. The book itself has an interesting history. It was first published privately by an individual named Frank Graham in 1970. The second printing in 1978 was again a private printing, this time by one Charles Hardy, but two subsequent editions, 1982 and 1989, were published by The Friends of Bowes Museum.

Second marriage and death

In 1877 (marriage settlement 24 July 1877), Bowes remarried one Alphonsine Alphonsine Maria St. Amand, divorced wife of Comte de Courten [9] The second marriage did not turn out well, and it appears that John Bowes was attempting to obtain a divorce from his wife from March to May 1884. Alphonsine may have been mother of the Italian artist Angelo comte de Courten (1848-1925)[10] Bowes died childless in 1885.

Will and bequests

Durham County records: Bowes's will (dated 1 June 1878) left his wife Alphonsine an annuity of £3000 for life, as well as £20,000 to wife. Substantial sums were left to his curator Amelie Basset,[11] to his three named godchildren. The remainder of his estate, not entailed, was largely devised to the trustees of his first wife's will (registered 1875) for the purposes of setting up the Museum.

By the terms of his father's entailment, his English properties reverted to his legitimate cousins upon his death. Streatlam Castle was eventually sold by the family in 1922 on the eve of the wedding of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon to HRH The Duke of York, allegedly to pay for the costs of the wedding. The derelict castle passed through many hands, and was demolished by its new owner Philip Ivan Pease in 1959, but the Pease family retains the lands till date. Gibside is now owned by the National Trust.

John Bowes is best remembered today as the founder of the Bowes Museum, which has been described as the Wallace Collection of the North.[12]


  1. Full dates and places are from Bowes, John: The Oxford Dictionary of Art.
  2. Northern Echo, 17 April 2002
  3. According to Augustus Hare, Strathmore went through a secret and false ceremony of marriage with Mary Milner to persuade her to live with him, and only revealed on his deathbed (in 1820) that he had never actually married her. Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act (1753) made common-law marriages legally invalid for the first time in British history; thus by English law, Strathmore and Milner were never married. If the pair had been domiciled in Scotland, the fact that Strathmore and Milner had lived together as man and wife would have been sufficient to establish a marriage. Hare claims that young John Bowes was enrolled at Eton as Lord Glamis.
  4. Scottish private law on legitimation by subsequent marriage, which was based on Roman law, required that the parties have been free to marry at the time of their child's birth (which condition was fulfilled), and that the parties be domiciled in Scotland (which condition was not fulfilled). Since then, Scottish law on legitimation has been changed by the Legitimation (Scotland) Act 1968. This law would now permit even children born to adulterous parents who subsequently marry to be legitimated; see the case of Drumlanrig in 1973.
  5. Bowes, John Bowes in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  6. John Bowes 1811-1885
  7. Bowes Museum: Joséphine Bowes
  8. John Bowes 1811-1885, Op.cit. Unfortunately, the source of this title, which appears to be the Principality of San Marino, is unclear.
  9. Durham County records: Ref No. D/HH 5/1/105.
  10. Durham County Records: Strathmore Estate letters from Alphonsine Bowes to the Earl of Strathmore. She was preparing to leave Biarritz for London, presumably to answer charges brought against her.
  11. Some websites give her name as Amelie Basset, the daughter of his old dealer friend who had died the same year as Josephine. He had known her since she was twelve years old. The Bowes Museum says that she inherited her father's business and
    in 1875 (one year after the death of Joséphine) John Bowes asked her to look after the Collection that was to be housed at the Bowes Museum in England. Amélie was responsible for the cleaning and repair of all the paintings in store, and supervising everything in the Temporary Gallery in France before organising the shipment of cases to Barnard Castle. Her important role was reflected in John’s will when he died: he left her £9000 [sic]!
    . Amelie was therefore Bowes's Curator and one of the beneficiaries of his will, but not his second wife (as stated by some online sources). This is confirmed by the Durham County records which summarize the will dated 1878, where Amelie Basset, picture dealer, of 7 Rue Mansart, Paris, is left £5,000 (contradicting the Bowes Museum statement of £9000.
  12. See for example Bowes, John: The Oxford Dictionary of Art. The comparison might be deliberate; both men were the acknowledged sons of their fathers, wealthy peers; both lived in France for a considerable period; both married French wives, who had been previously their mistress.


  • Charles E. Hardy - John Bowes and the Bowes Museum (1970, reprinted 1982) ISBN 0-9508165-0-7
  • Who's Who of British Members of Parliament: Volume I 1832-1885, edited by M. Stenton (The Harvester Press 1976)

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom

[[Category:UK MPs 1832


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