Beasts keeping a watchful eye over The Bowes Museum
In an occasional column, Dorothy Blundell takes a sideways look at the collections of The Bowes Museum. This week, the focus is on the beasts of Bowes
KEEPING a watchful gaze over visitors who enter and leave The Bowes Museum (when not closed under lockdown, of course) are two rather fearsome Gothic beasts.
Made of stone, they are heraldic statues which, in the language of this specialised subject, are “sejant erect”.
That means they are seated on their haunches but with upright bodies and forepaws raised in the “rampant” pose – in this case, they are holding shields with three diagonal stripes. Historic England has them Grade I listed so we know they are of exceptional interest.
They arrived on sentry duty during the 1970s from Manchester, having once been among many statues which graced the outside of the city’s assizes.
The building, designed by Alfred Waterhouse in the Venetian Gothic style, was completed in 1864. He used sculptor Thomas Woolner and the Irish stonemason firm of O’Shea and Whelan to add suitably decorative touches in the style of freehand stone carving typical of medieval Gothic architecture.
In an old photograph of the assizes, a silhouette of a carving at the corner of the roof of the building hints that it might be one of the beasts. Could there perhaps have been a beast stationed on each of the corners?
The assizes building suffered bomb damage in the Second World War and had to be demolished in 1957. Many of the sculptures that survived were preserved; some were incorporated into the new courts building, others put into store until a home could be found. Enter curator Michael Kirkby who, in the 1970s, was casting about for some statues to put in the museum’s park.
He managed to organise the donation of these two beasts – they could be heraldic antelopes which stand for peace, harmony and courage. And the stripes on the shield are from the Mancunian coats of arms. They symbolise the three rivers which run through Manchester city centre: the Irwell, the Irk and the Medlock.
Kirkby also managed to get about ten statues representing heads of church and state donated from the Houses of Parliament in 1970 when original stonework was being replaced.
Retired curator Elizabeth Conran, who also came from Manchester to The Bowes Museum and succeeded Kirkby in 1979, says: “Michael put the statues along the terrace in front of the museum.
“My feeling was that they had nothing to do with the architecture and were in the wrong place.
“So I had them moved to the mound on the north-west side of the building when it was laid out in the 1980s. It became a sort of grotto of ancient kings and queens.”
The beasts, however, stayed put, looking quite at home. Up close, they also exude a friendly charm which entices many a passing visitor to a closer look and often a shared selfie.
Now the gates are open after lockdown, why not seek your own photo-opportunity?
Explore the collection online: thebowesmuseum .org.uk.