Most of what you see at the Bowes Museum in County Durham is the work of two people: the illegitimate (yet wealthy) son of a British aristocrat, John Bowes, and his beautiful French actress wife, Joséphine. Against the odds, the unconventional pair dedicated their married life to building and filling the Bowes Museum, installing an incongruous home for the arts in the arable landscape, intended at the time to ‘raise the minds’ and perk the intellects of locals. It’s the stuff of fairytales – in everything but a ‘happily ever after’. Neither John or Joséphine lived to see the project completed.
Long succeeding them, this year the museum turns 125. To mark the occasion, its extensive galleries have been handed over to another eccentric pair: artist Gavin Turk and his wife Deborah Curtis, who are presenting a duo of interlinking exhibitions. Curtis has masterminded the zany, child-centric ‘The Clockwork Garden’ educational exhibition, run by charity The House of Fairytales, while Turk presents the second phase of his ‘Turkish Tulips’ exhibition, the first of which was held in Amsterdam’s Museum Van Loon earlier this year.
The 19th-century French-style chateaux, plonked improbably among the fields and hedgerows of the market town of Barnard Castle, might seem an unlikely location to present a show on Amsterdam’s signature flower – especially one coordinated by a mustachioed YBA. Seeing posters across town branded with tulips has left locals puzzled. What relevance does the Dutch floral symbol have with rural County Durham; let alone the curious Bowes?
Tulips (after Mapplethorpe), by Michael Craig-Martin, 2016, in the Fashion and Textiles Gallery
Turk is ready with the answers. ‘This is ultimately an exhibition about collecting, which is where the link to the museum comes in,’ he explains. ‘We’re playing on the tulip’s importance to the Bowes’ collection, and its links to trading and the spread of eastern aesthetics.’ The tulip’s tale is one of migration from east to west, originating in the Ottoman Empire, pollinating Europe via the Silk Roads. The flower’s exotic origins and sensual connotations would have appealed to Joséphine, who is known to have had an ‘adventurous taste’, says the Bowes Museum’s fashion and textiles curator, Joanna Hashagen. Besides, by the 18th century, the tulip had become the most painted flower in Europe.
Dotted among shelves overflowing with curiosities – from a two-headed stuffed calf, to a 17th-century square piano, via a penny farthing – we stumble upon contemporary interpretations of tulips by Turk and a string of his art world colleagues, including Damien Hirst, Michael Craig-Martin, Cornelia Parker, Mat Collishaw and Yinka Shonibare.
‘The idea is to get you to look at things – and see things – differently,’ says Turk. ‘The more we looked into the Bowes collection with tulips in mind, the more examples we found.’
The 15,000-strong collection (which includes works by Turner and Goya, along with historical textiles, ceramics and a magnificent silver swan automaton) blooms with countless tulip motifs – provided you know where to look. Turk and Curtis have constructed a handy map illustrating all of the examples currently on display, as well as pinpointing the contemporary pieces they’ve added.
Blink and you'll miss them – which is part of the fun. It's like a treasure hunt through history. A Collishaw photograph is tucked away in Curtis’ ‘The Clockwork Garden’ exhibition, among the children’s activities; while Hirst’s tongue-in-cheek Hirsht poster sits incongruously next to some 18th-century ceramics. ‘We're playing with the art,’ says Curtis. ‘We’re creating environments where adults, as they discover each work, can feel the same kind of wonder that children feel. We’re trying to counteract the trepidation some people might feel when coming into an art gallery.’ It’s a refreshing approach. The pioneering, philanthropic Bowes would have thoroughly approved.