Civil rights advocate and art collector John Bowes seemed destined for masonic greatness. Philippa Faulks discovers the Provincial Grand Master who never was
John Bowes is best known for the magnificent Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham. Created with his wife Joséphine as a legacy for future generations, it now houses some of Britain’s most treasured artworks and has been compared to the Wallace Collection in London.
Born on 19 June 1811 in London, Bowes was the illegitimate son of John Bowes-Lyon, the 10th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. The Earl had engaged in a long affair with Mary Milner, a commoner, only marrying her 16 hours before his death in 1820, when his son was nine years old. The marriage did not prevent Bowes-Lyon’s brother Thomas claiming the title of 11th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne.
Young Bowes’ legitimacy was questioned and the courts agreed that he would inherit the English estates – including the Gibside estate and Streatlam Castle – and that his uncle would come into the Scottish estates and earldom. Bowes was brought up by his mother at Gibside and later gained a BA at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1832.
Bowes had a keen interest in theatre and art, notably due to his friendship with novelist and satirical cartoonist William Makepeace Thackeray. He ventured to Paris in 1832 and returned many times, having a financial interest in the Théâtre des Variétés. It was also where he met his future wife.
Back in Britain, Bowes was responsible for the Strathmore English estates, but his other main passion was horse racing. He owned Streatlam Stud and his finest triumph came with the horse West Australian, who won the 2,000 Guineas, the Derby and the St Leger Stakes in 1854, a feat later dubbed as winning ‘the Triple Crown’.
Politician and philanthropist
Bowes was the Liberal Party MP for South Durham between 1832 and 1847 and a political reformer. He was an advocate for civil rights, religious freedom of expression and the abolition of colonial slavery – all qualities that would complement his masonic career. Of all the biographies available, however, little or no mention is made of his curious appointment as Provincial Grand Master of Durham in 1845.
According to masonic records, Bowes was initiated into Scientific Lodge, No. 131 (now No. 88), on 19 May 1831, while at Cambridge. Duly passed and raised, he then joined the now erased Union Lodge of Barnard Castle, No. 667, in 1842. He became a member of what is now Palatine Lodge, No. 97 (formerly Sea Captains’ Lodge, No. 218), in 1845 and joined the London-based Lodge of Friendship, No. 6, the following year.
According to a paper by CE Hardy entitled ‘John Bowes, The PGM who was never installed’, in the early part of 1845 Bowes was PGM-designate for the province of Durham. However, how, when or by whom he was recommended is still a mystery.
In October 1845 it was announced by Sir Cuthbert Sharp DPGM, at a meeting of Lodge of Industry, No. 56 (now No. 48), ‘that his [Bowes’] installation would take place at as early a date as could be arranged’. The announcement was received with ‘great satisfaction by the brethren present’ and ‘a general revival of Freemasonry in the Province’ was expected to result.
Bowes, however, was never installed and resigned from the appointment in 1847. A copy of a letter from the Grand Master, Thomas Dundas, 2nd Earl of Zetland, to Bowes states that: ‘Although I sincerely regret to lose your cooperation as a mason, yet I admit that under the circumstances you are perfectly right in resigning the office of Prov GM of Durham.’
So, what was the reason behind ‘the PGM who never was’? Hardy’s research suggests a catalogue of unfortunate circumstances and miscommunications.
Around this time, Bowes was travelling back and forth to France, partly for business but more likely affairs of the heart; he was enamoured with the actress Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevalier, an avid art collector. It was this liaison that would later lead to the creation of the County Durham museum.
Bowes was in the swansong years of his political career, leaving him free to pursue his philanthropy. It is probable that the delays caused by his absences, and the sudden illness of his supporter Sir Cuthbert Sharp, caused Bowes to decide that he could not fulfil the expectations of him as PGM.
Bowes’ masonic career did not stall completely with these events, however. He became a founder member of Barnard Lodge, No. 1230, in 1868, and contributed £100 towards building the masonic hall.
‘He was an advocate for civil rights, religious freedom of expression and the abolition of colonial slavery.’
Bowes and Joséphine married in 1852 and oversaw work on the museum, although neither lived to see its completion. Joséphine laid the foundation stone in 1869, despite being gravely ill, and died in 1874; Bowes died on 9 October 1885. He would have been heartened to know that the 1892 opening was ‘attended by local lodges in full masonic regalia’.
In April 2009 the museum added another masonic connection. During restorations, a local stonemason found an old beer bottle with a note inside:
‘I wonder if this flue will ever be reopened? If it should be, and this bottle should still survive, the finder may be interested to find this brief record…
I, the writer, am the second curator of the museum, and have held the appointment for nearly 22 years. I am 54 years of age – a Churchman and Conservative, and a Past Master of the Barnard Lodge of Freemasons, No. 1230.’
Signed in 1906 by one Owen Stanley Scott, it is a fitting reminder of a legacy built on Freemasonry.
With grateful thanks to Adam Lamb, Provincial Museum and Library, Sunderland; Martin Cherry, Library and Museum of Freemasonry, London; and John Acaster
From Hogarth’s satirical engravings through to membership certificates designed by Mucha, historian Lucy Inglis discovers how artists have responded over the centuries to the principles, symbolism and patronage of Freemasonry
An exhibition held in the Library and Museum at Freemasons’ Hall, Encounters: Artists and Freemasonry Over 300 Years seeks to bring together artists who have made significant contributions to the art associated with Freemasonry. In some cases, these are images and objects, such as books of instruction and jewels involved in masonic ceremonies. Elsewhere, abstract interpretations of masonic symbolism add a further element to the range of art on offer.
The exhibition begins in earnest at the start of the eighteenth century, when the formation of the first Grand Lodge led to the publication of Constitutions (official rule books) and lists of lodges featuring detailed engravings. The Constitutions and lists were sanctioned by the Grand Lodge of England and the artists employed on their design used biblical imagery and references to classical architecture to stress a view that Freemasonry, even in the 1720s, had a long lineage. This early series, showing work by Sir James Thornhill and John Pine in particular, is dominated by superb examples of William Hogarth’s contentious contributions to the masonic artistic canon.
Appearing on the register of a lodge on Little Queen Street, Hogarth was a Freemason by 1725. Despite being part of the brotherhood, he defaulted to his trademark satirical social commentary with The Mystery of Masonry Brought to Light by the Gormogons (1724). Typical of Hogarth, the Gormogons depicts real people, including James Anderson, author of the Constitutions, who is shown with his head through the rungs of a ladder, apparently engaged in kissing the buttocks of an aged crone in mocking reference to his attempts to regularise Freemasonry. Also featured is Hogarth’s Night (1738), showing Sir Thomas de Veil, a vocal critic of London’s gin trade, as an inebriated Master.
There is a strong showing of later eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century masonic art, culminating in significant works by Alphonse Mucha. The jewels and apron he designed are intriguing, while the large-scale membership certificate is particularly striking.
‘artists used biblical imagery and references to classical architecture to stress a view that Freemasonry had a long lineage’
When the Republic of Czechoslovakia was formed as an independent state in 1918, Mucha’s art played a key role in forming the state’s new identity. He even designed its new banknotes and postage stamps.
The work of Alvin Langdon Coburn will be new to many visitors. Coburn was born in Massachusetts in 1882 and took up photography at the age of eight. In his late thirties, after exhibiting successfully in New York and London, he moved to North Wales and in 1919 became a Freemason, embracing the organisation wholeheartedly. His portrait of US President Theodore Roosevelt is the most striking and well known of his photographs shown at the exhibition, although Coburn was not yet a Freemason when the image was captured in 1907.
Of the modern art featured in this exhibition, two artists are particularly prominent. Trevor Frankland, Master of Philbrick Lodge, No. 2255, in Essex in 1994, contributed (before his death in 2011) two pieces representing the journey of the Ashlar: a screen print called Ashlars in the Making (undated) and a large-scale work on wood and hardboard named The Perfect Ashlar (1972). The Perfect Ashlar has depth and layered interest well suited to its subject matter.
Yanko Bonev, a sculptor born in north-eastern Bulgaria and a former Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Bulgaria, also contributed large-scale pieces of modern art. After an early career in monumental public sculpture, he became a Freemason when the organisation was introduced to Bulgaria in the 1990s and turned his hand to smaller bronzes.
This is an exhibition that has been painstakingly put together and is adroitly pitched at the visitor who may not have considered the strong links between art and Freemasonry before. It also contains hidden depths for those with more detailed knowledge of the rites and rituals of Freemasonry and their associated histories. There is much here to discover.
Encounters: Artists and Freemasonry Over 300 Years runs until 20 September 2013, Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm. Freemasonry Today would like to thank Martin Cherry for his assistance in putting this article together.
‘this exhibition contains hidden depths for those with more detailed knowledge of the rites and rituals of Freemasonry’