PET PORTRAIT: Bernadine portrait by Antoine Dury. She was one of the first ever yellow Labradors
PET PORTRAIT: Bernadine portrait by Antoine Dury. She was one of the first ever yellow Labradors

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

ANIMALS feature heavily in the story of The Bowes Museum and its founders. For Josephine Bowes, given her nervous and excitable disposition, being surrounded by animals must have been a sort of therapy.
Before her marriage to John, Josephine had a house near the Bois de Boulogne where she kept a cow, goats, dog, cat and canary – all cared for by her gardener. We know she had a fondness for birds.
Her “favourite macaw”, described by John Bowes in a letter as “a remarkably gentle bird”, was entrusted to the Bowes’ coachman to transport from France to Streatlam to live.
There, Josephine gave instructions to the housekeeper that food was to be put out for the wild birds – she liked rooks, and though glad to hear their numbers were increasing, hoped it would not be at the expense of the jackdaws in “the neighbourhood of the castle”.
In 1873 Josephine, perhaps in search of an uplifting boost to her poor health, asked for “two finest blackbirds” to be captured and brought to Paris to learn how to sing from their own caged blackbird which “whistles airs in a remarkable way”.
This was likely considered to be normal practice then – it was another 100-plus years before it became illegal in the UK. In 1859, she asked that a doe fawn be tamed for her.
She named it Daisy. Finding one would have been easy for there were deer in Streatlam park, but exactly who was given the task of taming it – and how – is not recorded.
From correspondence held in the museum archive we learn that in 1861 Daisy was unwell (Bowes suspected it was because she was being petted too much) and again, in 1865, there were anxious inquiries about whether Daisy had given birth. Two years later Daisy was dead and Ralph Dent (the Bowes’ land agent) was instructed to find another.
Dogs dominate in the animal affection stakes.
Letters refer in passing to a succession of them, such as Bisquette and Loo Loo, and unfortunate news about the deaths of Toddy and Pierrot (the latter caught in a rabbit trap); there is a reference to a Skye terrier bitch which the Boweses wanted sent to them in Paris (could this possibly be the dog pictured at the feet of John Bowes by Eugene Feyen?).
A portrait of a cheeky terrier, possibly painted by Josephine, might be that of Palette. He – or she (there are several letters about Palette’s pups) was kept under very close watch in January 1871 “to prevent him being stolen and made into mutton chops”. This was during the Paris siege when people resorted to eating anything they could lay hands on.
Bernadine, the yellow labrador at Josephine’s feet in the Antoine Dury painting of her, was so important in the couple’s life that the same artist was commissioned to paint the dog’s portrait.
It is notable now not just for its sentimental significance in the collection, but because Bernadine represents the one of the first of her breed and is recognised as such by the Kennel Club UK which some years ago borrowed the portrait for one of its exhibitions.
Another dog portrait due to go on loan later this year – to the Wallace Collection in London – is the Dog of the Havana Breed. The painting by Jean Jacques Bachelier (1724-1806) was acquired by John and Josephine Bowes and though it looks like a poodle, it is the national dog of Cuba, known as a Havanese Silk dog because its coat is soft and fluffy.
This painting was restored in 1989 to reveal its original composition.
It was discovered that the ribbon draped over the dog’s leg had been extended, probably in the 18th century, to cover the animal’s private parts and avoid offending viewers of delicate sensibilities.
The Bowes Museum is home to another famous pet – Clara the rhinoceros – in the form of a small, white marble statue (roughly 2ft high) which was also acquired by the founders.
They will have been aware of her story as, in life, Clara was no ordinary rhino. Born in India around 1738 and orphaned while still a calf, she was adopted by a Dutch sea captain, Douwemout van der Meer, who for 17 years took her travelling around Europe.
She wowed the crowds – from royalty to peasants: she was an animal superstar.
And she will once again enjoy the public spotlight as the focus of an exhibition, The Adventures of Clara, planned to run at the museum sometime after it re-opens once lockdown allows.