The museum contains paintings by El Greco, Francisco Goya, Canaletto, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher, together with a sizable collection of decorative art, ceramics, textiles, tapestries, clocks and costumes, as well as older items from local history. The early works of French glassmaker Émile Gallé were commissioned by Joséphine, wife of the founder John Bowes. A great attraction is the 18th-century Silver Swan automaton, which periodically preens itself, looks round and appears to catch and swallow a fish.
The Bowes Museum was purpose-built as a public art gallery for John Bowes and his wife Joséphine Chevalier, Countess of Montalbo, who both died before it opened in 1892. Bowes was the illegitimate son of John Bowes, the 10th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne.
It was designed with the collaboration of two architects, the French architect Jules Pellechet and John Edward Watson of Newcastle. The building, in a grand French style within landscaped gardens, an early account described it as "... some 500 feet in length by 50 feet high, and is designed in the French style of the First Empire. Its contents are priceless, consisting of unique Napoleon relics, splendid picture galleries, a collection of old china, not to be matched anywhere else in the world, jewels of incredible beauty and value; and, indeed, a wonderful and rare collection of art objects of every kind."
Among those with less favourable opinions was Nikolaus Pevsner, who considered it to be "... big, bold and incongruous, looking exactly like the town hall of a major provincial town in France. In scale it is just as gloriously inappropriate for the town to which it belongs (and to which it gives some international fame) as in style".
The building was begun in 1869 and was reputed to have cost £100,000 (equivalent to £9.1 million in 2018). Bowes and his wife left an endowment of £125,000 (£11.3 million in 2018) and a total of 800 paintings. Their collection of European fine and decorative arts amounted to 15,000 pieces.
A major redevelopment of the Bowes Museum began in 2005. To date, improvements have been made to visitor facilities (shop, cafe and toilets); galleries (new Fashion & Textile gallery, Silver gallery and English Interiors gallery); and study/learning facilities. The three art galleries, on the second floor of the museum, were updated at the same time.
The BBC announced in 2013 that a Portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter was a previously unknown Anthony van Dyck painting. It had been found in the Bowes Museum storeroom by art historian Dr. Bendor Grosvenor who had observed it on-line at the Your Paintings web site. The painting itself was covered in layers of varnish and dirt, and had not been renovated. It was originally thought to be a copy, and valued at between £3,000 to £5,000.Christopher Brown, director of the Ashmolean Museum, confirmed it was a van Dyck after it had been restored.
Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Portrait of a Lady (unknown date)
Anselm van Hulle, Family Portrait Group (1640-1650)
Paul Jean Baptiste Lazerges, Still Life with Crabs and Bottle,