In an occasional column, Dorothy Blundell takes a sideways personal look at what goes on behind the scenes at The Bowes Museum where she is a volunteer

THE heaviest and largest item in The Bowes Museum is easy to miss when it’s open for business, but so obvious when it’s closed, like now – the split arched front doors.
Outside of lockdown, the building only closes to the public on three days a year (Christmas, Boxing and New Year’s), so – ordinarily – it’s when the last of the visitors have left at 5pm that the doors slowly swing shut until opening time the next day.
And just before then, when the sun is shining, is the best time to admire them, even from as far away as the (temporarily) locked front gates. Rays of light make the doors’ brass ornamentation glint like gold, hinting at the treasures which exist beyond the portal.
For a building as grand and imposing as a French-style chateau which is 100 yards long and 100ft high, the entrance needs to be no less grand and imposing. And these doors are. Made of solid iron, 17ft high and each half weighing about five tons, they were part of the original design by French architect Jules Pellechet.
In January 1879, just over nine years after Josephine Bowes had ceremonially tapped the foundation stone and five years after her death, the roof was nearly finished.
Now the doors were ready. They had been made in France because it was cheaper than having them made locally. And at this time, costs were likely weighing on the mind of John Bowes as heavily as the doors themselves.
The fortunes he made from coal in the early 1870s were dwindling. In 1874, the museum cost him £13,600 and the following year it was £19,300. With so much work still to complete, such as parquetry flooring, heating system, wall cases and room decoration, Bowes confided in a letter to his solicitor that had he known the project would “have been so heavy a pull on my purse as it has been, I never would have undertaken it on such a scale”.
His English architect, John Watson, from Newcastle, had suggested to Bowes the possibility of saving a few hundred pounds by using heavy solid oak doors instead. Maybe Watson had in mind a “yett’” The word from Old English means a gate and it is a hinged grille or lattice of wrought iron bars. In England, the style was to infill the gate with oak.
The museum actually has a yett in its collection. It came from the cellars of medieval Streatlam Castle and, probably because of the family’s ancestry, its design is of the Scottish, open, construction. There is a picture of it in Jonathan Peacock’s booklet which accompanied the museum’s Streatlam Castle exhibition in 2018.
Bowes refused to compromise. Undoubtedly wanting to honour the memory of his adored late wife, whose inspiration the museum was, he chose to uphold his family motto – “sans variance terme de vie” (steadfast unto the end).
Consequently, the iron doors were put on a steamboat in Paris and despatched to Dover and thence by train to Barnard Castle. Although their journey was delayed by the Seine being frozen for the third time in the 19th century, three lines in the Teesdale Mercury of March 5, 1879, report safe arrival at their final destination.
John and Josephine Bowes wanted their museum to be a gateway to the world: to open the door to the beauty of art, as well as everyday objects and images showing life in other lands, the people of Teesdale. One day, the time will come again when these great front doors are opened up for us to be invited in to admire them as well as all the treasures they protect inside.