The Bowes Museum contains a comprehensive collection of European fine and decorative arts for the period 1500-1900, including about 1500 paintings (including works by Sassetta, El Greco, Goya, Boucher, Tiepolo, Canaletto, Boudin, Courbet, Reynolds and Gainsborough), a very extensive collection of ceramics, including items from most European factories, with special strengths in the French ‘soft-paste’ factories of Chantilly, Sèvres and Saint Cloud, as well as the Lady Ludlow collection of English porcelain given by the Art Fund in 2004; early glass by Emile Gallé; French 18th and 19th century furniture from the Bowes’ own homes in France; and a wide range of costume and important textiles up to the present day, including the Blackborne collection of lace. In addition, there are extensive collections of local history, formed mostly in the 20th century. The most famous item is perhaps the life-size silver swan automaton, made in London in about 1773 by James Cox.
The Museum also holds an extensive reference library collection of fine and decorative arts books and local history volumes, sales catalogues and runs of Journals such as Apollo, Burlington Magazine and Country Life. The John and Josephine Bowes Archive contains correspondence and bills relating to the Founders’ lives in Paris and the building and development of their Museum from the 1850s to the 1870s, forming a unique record of the history of the Museum and its collections.