A blog from our favourite roving reporter, David Smith…
I was last there nine years ago for my son’s wedding to Claire, a lovely young woman from Teesside. The wedding was at Auckland Castle – not a real castle, but a historic house, home to the bishops of Durham for 900 years. Now stay with me….
The wedding was in St. Peter’s Chapel, the largest private chapel in Europe. There is something special about the soaring voices of a church choir swirling around the pillars to the walls and then upwards to the decorated high roof. We had a wonderful day.
The great treat and surprise was having drinks in the Long Dining Room. Surrounded by 13 8ft. paintings of Jacob and his 12 sons in Spanish peasant costume, by the 17th. century Spanish artist Francisco de Zubáran, we could only stand and stare. In fact there were only 12. The thirteenth is a copy; they have never been able to bring back the prodigal original to Bishop Auckland.
The Church Commissioners planned to sell the works (£20m I believe) . Simon Jenkins, former Chairman of the National Trust, discovered the intention and created a storm of support for them to stay in the Northeast. The paintings continue to be important because their purchase and display was a deliberate act to demonstrate religious tolerance, especially towards Jewish people living in England, in the 18th century. They continue to be a public appeal for social, political and religious consideration, as relevant today as they were when purchased in 1756.
Well there is even better news now. Jonathan Ruffer an investment hedge fund manager based in London, but who now lives in Bishop Auckland, not far from his birthplace, has dedicated his personal fortune to the Castle and its collection. He has bought both the Castle and the paintings! His investment has now been boosted by £9millon grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop a £65 million project.
The intention is to create a new national exhibition space in the Castle to open fully by 2018 for art which explores faith. The first contemporary installation: a video installation by Bill Viola can be seen now. It is a really challenging piece in such a traditional setting. The Church of England is not as stuffy as you may think in presenting contemporary art. (Chichester Cathedral houses works by Marc Chagal, John Piper, Graham Sutherland. And today there is Anna Freeman Bentley’s installation: Descent of Jacob’s Ladder which brings us back to Jacob, the Zubárans and Auckland Castle). So if you are up in the Northeast this summer it’s worth a call.