Design: Darling, I just had to have it

In the 19th century, John and Josephine Bowes embarked on a gigantic shopping spree to fill the museum they founded. Today their creation houses an eccentric and exuberant show of modern design as well.
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The Boweses Museum is impossible. It should never have been built, but it demands love at first sight. It is a huge, French-style chateau plonked in the middle of the Teesdale countryside, a monument to passion over common sense.

Mr and Mrs Boweses put it there. He, John, was the illegitimate son of an earl and owned collieries, ships and racehorses. She, Josephine, was a French actress and courtesan who painted tolerably well. John loved her so much he bought the vaudeville theatre in Paris where she performed.

The museum, at Barnard Castle, County Durham, is their folly a deux, a complete artwork designed to commemorate their passion for art and for each other. They were not art scholars, not even connoisseurs, more like shopaholics. They went on a 15-year spending spree (1861-75) buying what they fancied in order to fill the museum. You get an idea of their taste when confronted by the life-size silver mechanical swan in the museum foyer. It is, ahem, a trifle vulgar.

The couple shopped till they dropped. Neither lived to see the opening, in 1892, of the museum that has been a headache for penniless trustees and sober-sided county councillors ever since.

What would the Boweses be up to today? John, his mines closed, his racehorses sold, still suffering from gout, would be blowing raspberries from his wheelchair at the Durham county councillors who this year tried to close the museum for five months annually, in order to save a measly pounds 34,000. Josephine, who in one shopping expedition in 1869 squandered 5,840 francs - about pounds 75,000 today - on seven Worth dresses, (having picked up a painting by Goya for 680 francs, pounds 3,400 today), would have been wheezing asthmatic blandishments at her husband to commit the obvious, irresponsible outrage - start filling the museum with new gear: "Never mind who pays for it. Just do it!"

Janice Blackburn has done just that. She curates Sotheby's annual selling exhibition of decorative arts and spent nine years working for the Saatchi Collection. Her choice of 80 contemporary artworks that she thinks John and Josephine would have bought are being exhibited alongside the decorative art, furniture, paintings and curios that they did buy.

Ms Blackburn is a passionate woman. She has fallen in love with the Boweses. When first invited to visit the museum, she wondered: "Do I really want to drag all the way up to County Durham?" But: "I took one look at it and could not believe my eyes."

Now, she says: "My family thinks I'm reincarnating as Josephine. It's true that I've tried to get inside the skins of both of them. If Josephine walked through a door in the museum I would not be surprised."

If it takes a peculiar person to respond like that to the spirit of John and Josephine, there must be quite a few peculiar people about. The extravagance, irrationality and passion of the couple - so lacking in the correctness of today - shames our nine-to-five world and is infectious. Blackburn says: "They were mad, wild, wonderful, un-boring people".

So when the museum failed to raise any sponsorship from British business for her show - who would link a company's name to such a mad scheme? - she appealed to the wild side of her friends for an extra pounds 5,000 towards the exhibition catalogue. Sir Dennis Stevenson, outgoing chairman of the trustees of the Tate Gallery, and Lady Stevenson, tipped up pounds 1,000. Another pounds 1,000 came from Donald Davidson, chairman of Persimmon Homes. She herself put in pounds 4,500, her prize for winning a curators' award. Enthusiasm indeed for a couple who bought Canalettos and whose sense of the avant garde did not extend beyond Courbet's paintings of workers and peasants; who missed out on the emerging Impressionists (Cezanne, Degas, Manet, Monet); who bought not from artists' studios but from galleries and big art fairs, where dealers' eyes lit up at the sight of them. And whose annual bill for gowns would have supported a whole village of miners' widows. Yet their passion for art and life, across the years, continues to arouse a kind of nostalgia. They had such a good time!

Ms Blackburn has posthumously presented them with an exuberant, chest- high ceramic artichoke pot by Kate Malone. It is not a cutting-edge piece, not the sort of abstract slab that Gordon Baldwin makes. But the Boweses would probably have considered Baldwin's work not much fun. This piece is sumptuous, extravagant. They would have loved it. The artichoke is typical of Ms Blackburn's self-imposed brief: "I wanted to let the collection speak to me, not me to it." There are only a few pieces in her selection that would appeal to Charles Saatchi.

Perhaps her most emphatic choice is the pink tulle Mitzah gown by John Galliano for Christian Dior's spring/summer 1997 collection. A Dior archivist was flown free by Air France to put the gown on its mannequin, in front of a fireplace on which is hung a portrait of Josephine wearing a gown designed by Worth - the last British designer before Galliano to head a Paris fashion house. It is, nevertheless, the exhibit that cost most to put on display. "I just had to have it," says Blackburn, echoing words that must have passed Josephine's lips almost daily.

The most cutting-edge clothes are Emily Bates's three 10ft-tall dresses made from human hair (displayed beneath a painting of the crowning of the Virgin Mary), Caroline Broadhead's diaphanous, unwearable dress on a wire frame, and Mary Little's chair upholstered in human garb. They are advanced, conceptual - which would not have appealed to the Boweses - but are also fun - which would. All three are young but established names. By now, it must be assumed, Young British Artists recommended by the right dealers would have been among the guests at the Boweses' lavish parties.

A Jo Gordon horn-shaped headdress of feathers is modelled by a stuffed crow. This is a jeu d'esprit of Ms Blackburn's. She rummaged among the stuffed animals in the museum's attic, found the crow, an owl and other dead things, and consigned them to the museum's industrial deep freeze for two days, to kill any bugs. "Rather Damien Hirst," she says, eyeing the crow disparagingly. "Actually, those things were revolting. I thought a stuffed alligator was going to feel me up and down every time I passed it. I must have washed my hands 20 times."

Would the Boweses have liked Benjamin Creed's model of a Vespa motorcycle, covered in beige carpet and displayed next to a sedate sedan chair of theirs? It might be expecting a bit much of John, who would probably have tried to ride it down a marble staircase, broken it, and chucked it out.

The blue of the Boweses' massive pair of Sevres porcelain jardinieres is reflected in the blue of Ms Blackburn's "Hydra" wall hanging by Elizabeth Garouste and Mattia Bonetti. It is made of linen, velvet, PVC, patinated metal and gilded shells. "So extravagant, so flamboyant," says Blackburn: "You just know they would have bought that."

There are some charming insertions into the permanent collection - such as a tiny, ceramic child's dress and shoes by Tiziana Bendall-Brunello, popped into a display cabinet among Delft figures of children, cows and milkmaids. In the cellar, Ms Blackburn indulges in puns - Guy Holder's big cement bottles look as if they have just been taken out of the Museum's kiln, and Nathalie Hambro's chain-mail apron stands beside the real thing from the Middle Ages. Margaret O'Rorke's fountain in translucent porcelain spouts like an exotic sea anemone, within sight of the Boweses' fountains outside. Yes, they would have gone for that. And Kate Wilkinson's jewellery. And Jones and Jones's meticulous sculpture, "Paradise Garden", made from fruit cake and multi-coloured icing. They would have eaten it.

"In a drab world," says Ms Blackburn, "we need people like the Boweses, who just followed their whims. They should be encouraged. Today, everyone needs a reason for doing things. Such a pity."

The exhibition, "Spirit of the Times" - which is funded by Northern Arts, the Crafts Council and Durham County Council - is until 4 October (10am-5pm Monday-Saturday, 2-5pm Sundays): entry pounds 3.90 adults, concessions pounds 2.90, family ticket (two children, two adults) pounds 12. The Bowes Museum is at Barnard Castle, Co Durham, tel 01833 690606. Nearest rail station is Darlington.