LAST BUYS: John Bowes acquired this richly ornamented sedan chair in 1875, shortly after Josephine’s death
LAST BUYS: John Bowes acquired this richly ornamented sedan chair in 1875, shortly after Josephine’s death

In the latest of her occasional columns, Dorothy Blundell takes a sideways look at some of the unique items on show at The Bowes Museum, where she is a volunteer.

THE last items bought by John and Josephine Bowes for their museum could not have been more different. Though the couple shared a common aim in amassing their collection, their individual tastes – evident in the objects they favoured – were often at opposites; a bit like two sides of the same coin.
Where Josephine bought contemporary artists and adored small, delicate and pretty things, John bought Old Masters and sturdy furniture.
After Josephine’s death, in February 1874, John all but stopped collecting for the museum. But in 1875, while on holiday in Italy still nursing his broken heart, John acquired an armoire (cupboard) made of walnut and a richly ornamented sedan chair.
The couple’s once-prolific rate of buying objects had slowed significantly as Josephine’s health had deteriorated. Bills from art dealers in Paris, of which hundreds are filed in the museum archives, had dwindled.
There were ten from AC Lamer in 1873 – the last one dated October 11. A bill from a few months earlier includes an intriguing reference: “One medallion with straw decoration, depicting an Austrian eagle and a dolphin, the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.” It cost 30 francs.
Honorary archivist Dr Judith Phillips, when sorting through the archives several years ago, found the reference and decided to track it down in the collection – not always straightforward as dealers’ sometimes vague descriptions make it difficult, even impossible, to pinpoint the exact item.
The museum collection and archives can be browsed and searched online (a boon to research students and local historians and a useful escape during Covid lockdowns).
Dr Phillips began by searching key words in the description: “Louis XVI” returned 81 mentions, “Cupid” 152 and “eagle” 117. Eventually, “dolphin”, with 50 entries, turned up the likely candidate. Curiously, the catalogue, which lists details of every object in the collection, made no mention of any royal marriage.
The small medallion, created between 1768-1772, is a watercolour image painted onto straw in a gold framed oval. Alas, it is too fragile to be on display: it would be ruined by daylight. The image shows Cupid in flight with a flaming torch above a dolphin and a double-headed eagle, also with a torch, on a bank of cloud.
The symbols here commemorate a marriage of dynasties in 1770 to ensure better relations between France and Austria. They represent Louis XVI (dolphin – he was Dauphin), Marie Antoinette (double-headed eagle of Austria) and Cupid, (offspring of Venus, goddess of love, and Mars, god of war) with a burning torch (enlightenment, life and truth).
The dealers knew that Joséphine had a strong interest in French history and was fascinated with Marie Antoinette.
But she also had a fiery temper and was not always seduced by their sales patter. A letter in the archives from Lamer dated 1868 begs Josephine to forgive any perceived slight and she refused to buy “a precious fragment” of a book by Voltaire.
Dr Phillips adds: “Could this [marriage reference] have been a bit of clever promotion or one of Lamer’s tricks to catch Josephine? Or, is it a unique commemorative medallion? It is a lovely little thing, though slightly faded. Is it enhanced by its connection to Marie Antoinette? For Josephine, yes. For us, it is one more back story to an object from the founder’s collection. And for me, it is a vindication of the archives.”
The Bowes Museum is open daily 10am to 5pm. You can explore the collection online: thebowes