The Spanish Gallery, Bishop Auckland, and the Auckland Project

BACK in 2010, the Church Commissioners eyed up the prospect of selling the ancient home…

BACK in 2010, the Church Commissioners eyed up the prospect of selling the ancient home of the prince-bishops of Durham and its contents, including the famed paintings of Jacob and the Twelve tribes of Israel by the Spanish Golden Age artist Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), which had hung there since 1756. They even went so far as to hire lawyers to try to prevent news of the proposed sale being published (News, 11 November 2010).

Enter the lists a locally born philanthropist, one Jonathan Ruffer, and, years before governments spoke of a “Northern Powerhouse” or of “Levelling Up”, an advocate of a vision to bring a community together around its proud heritage. He not only bought the paintings that would have otherwise ended up in Ukraine, but the palace in which to keep them (Features, 12 July 2013).

Mr Ruffer has enlivened Bishop Auckland with an extraordinary sense of commonweal and commonwealth. At its heart, in the market place, is Number 42, a drop-in centre, a safe space for pre-schoolers, for the elderly, a Wi-Fi hub, and much else, with a reach beyond the town.

I was told about the project “Closed doors, Open hearts”, which ran throughout the pandemic. Whereas many institutions used the closure as an opportunity to undertake refurbishment, the project took it as an opportunity for outreach, and worked on the Woodhouse Close estate, which lies to the east of the town, built over disused pitheads and farmland bought from the Church Commissioners in 1947.

In the first lockdown, 20,000 meals of fresh food were made available, and the project now reckons that they have been in contact with 55,000 people, bringing together local stakeholders, suppliers, and an army of volunteers, for the benefit of the wider community.

Work of a different kind continues at the Roman Fort of Binchester near by, which Mr Ruffer also wrested from the Commissioners (News, 26 September 2014) to ensure that its local importance was celebrated appropriately. A local tenant farmer has agreed to turn to bio-farming while a water project is taking place along the Wear.

The Spanish Gallery, Bishop AucklandSt Anthony of Padua with the Christ Child by Juan Bautista Mai´no (1581-1649), oil on canvas, c.1608

Mr Ruffer intends that the collection, amassed in just 12 years and brilliantly shoe-horned into 800 square metres of exhibition space in a former bank building and school by Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios, should offer the Zurbarán paintings a context. They still hang in the dining room as first intended by Bishop Richard Trevor, which visitors will again be able to see on a tour this spring along with portraits of former bishops.

I was fortunate to visit behind the scenes with an old boy of Bishop Barrington School. He enthusiastically commented on the life-size Zurbaráns, hung in order of seniority, and on some of the episcopal portraits, including that of Shute Barrington by Thomas Lawrence, which I recognised from the version that hangs in his former Oxford college and always dominated the hall at Merton. Two hundred years later, in 1994, George Bruce portrayed Barrington’s successor Dr David Jenkins in the Coronation cope, with a miner’s lamp and ordination Bible.

From next year, the route will lead into the new Faith Museum taking shape above the medieval footings of the earlier palace, surrounding the ruins of a medieval chapel of 1300. The overpowering clean lines of the wood ceilings make for striking exhibition spaces and a timeline of Faith in the North-East will reflect on religion asking, “Where do I belong? How do I live? Am I alone?”.

This is, after all, the Christian landscape from which the Empress Helena and her son Constantine came, the home of Bede and of the Lindisfarne Gospels, of St Cuthbert and of Antony Bek, Bishop of Durham from 1283 until his death at Eltham Palace in 1311, and from 1306 the only English Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Stunning loans are promised from the British Museum and other lenders to supplement the project’s own holdings, and will include a silver ring, the Binchester intaglio, on which is depicted an anchor, from the cross bar of which are suspended two fish, a Christian symbol from before 306; one of the rare surviving Tyndale New Testaments (1536); as well as materials related to recusancy from the recently closed Carmelite community at Darlington, and a pulpit from which John Wesley preached at Newbiggin Methodist chapel on Teesside.

The Spanish Gallery, Bishop AucklandStill Life with an Array of Flowers in a Glass Vase on a Stone Pedestal by Juan de Arellano (1614-76), oil on canvas, c.1665-68

For the moment, it is the Mining Museum (closed on the day of my visit for a rehang) and the Spanish Gallery that lie at the heart of the cultural hub.

Mr Ruffer told me that he never intended to build up an exhibition of masterpieces, but, rather, to assemble the sort of works that can be found in churches and chapels across Spain, and not just in the Prado or other great galleries. I sense that he is a modest man at heart. In this, he has been greatly helped by two assiduous dealers who have “found” works for him, and by the generosity with which lenders have come forward.

Notable among them is the Hispanic Society of America, with no fewer than ten loans, including another scene-stealer by Zurbarán (St Lucy with the martyr’s sad bowl of jellied eyes); the El Greco Holy Family in which the tender Virgin breastfeeds a sprawling toddler; and two fascinating early-17th-century views of the Arenal of Seville and the river Guadalquivir with a tent city set up at the docks.

There were no paintings by J. B. Maíno (1581-1649) publicly exhibited in Britain before Mr Ruffer acquired three. The Penitent Magdalen was the star of the Prado’s 2009 winter exhibition of the artist. It has been drastically cut down on one side, but otherwise carefully follows an engraving by the Flemish printmaker Jan Sadler in which, as to be expected, the Magdalen gazes at a crucifix. By the removal of the religious elements of the landscape (although her pot of ointment still survives on a rock beside her), the image has become something of a Christian Venus. Even though her calves are hidden in folds of rich red velvet, there is no denying the erotic charge with which the artist has committed oil to canvas.

Perhaps more remarkable, however, is his Vision of St Anthony, depicting the youthful Franciscan preacher as he is interrupted by the appearance of the Holy Child. From the account in the Liber Miraculorum, 22.1-8, we learn that a nobleman, who had offered the Portuguese friar a room, spied on him one day in his study and saw the Christ Child manifested in front of his amazed house guest.

This popular iconography emphasised Franciscan enthusiasm for scholarship and a determination to make real the presence of Christ in our world.

The toddler turns towards the bemused saint, chucking him under the chin, while standing on the open book of scriptures. The Word made Flesh springs from the Word itself. Like Caravaggio’s disciple in the London Supper of Emmaus, the saint throws his arms wide in sheer astonishment at the revelation.

Zurbarán has seemingly used a Hellenistic model of Cupid for the figure of the visionary Christ. It reminded me of the Courtauld Institute’s Cézanne Still life with Cupid (1894), in which the contrapposto shows the child turns, putting weight on one leg, creating its subtle spatial tension.

Equally unknown hitherto in English collections are the paintings of J. F. de Navarrete (1538-79) and the sacred sculpture of Bernabé de Gaviria (1577-1622) from Granadam whose life-size St Bartholomew is extravagantly dressed in embroidered robes that by their sheer luxury remind the pious all too well that he will be stripped naked, and his skin will be flayed off him.

The Spanish Gallery, Bishop Auckland. Acquired with Art Fund supportPortrait of a Young Boy Holding a Lance by Juan van der Hamen y Léon (1596-1631), oil on canvas, c.1627

For the moment, there seems to be no stopping Mr Ruffer’s enthusiasm for growing his collection; he bought the powerful St Francis in Meditation (Ribera, 1591-1652) in 2021.

The saint’s heavenward gaze belies the hand-tailored fine herringbone Harris tweed habit in which he is dressed. In front of him lies a flail and a bare wooden cross with a skull. Has he received sudden inspiration (as on Mount Verna)? Unusually, a ten-pointed gold star between his eyebrows above the bridge of his nose hints at divine inspiration.

Two other pictures would make me return: a Rubens portrait and a sketch of a crucifix in a Portuguese chapel by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

Throughout my childhood, the Rubens copy of Titian’s portrait of the Emperor Charles V hung at Nidd Hall, the Yorkshire home of the Mountgarrets, outside Harrogate, not far from where my godmother lived.

The German-born Rubens worked in Italy between 1600 and 1608, and went to the court of Spain in 1603 as a diplomat. There, he saw a wealth of paintings by Raphael and Titian owned by the Habsburgs. The long-since-lost portrait by Titian was painted either in Parma or Bologna on the emperor’s way to be crowned by the pope in 1530. He deliberately modelled the new Holy Roman Emperor on Charlemagne, with upraised sword.

Rubens’s copy out-lavishes the Venetian’s habitual style. He seems to have painted it for himself; of all his princely portraits it is the most assured, and it was in his studio when he died in 1640. It later passed to the Habsburg enemies, the House of Orange. After the death of William III’s heirs, it was sold off in 1713, when it first came to England, bought by the Duke of Chandos. The nation accepted it in lieu of death duties from the estate of the 16th Viscount Mountgarret.

The “Mirfield Crucifix” was painted by Sargent around 1879. When I was training for ordination, it hung in Temple Moore’s 1904 Community Church, and was one of two paintings in front of which I would often sit to say my own prayers. Sargent’s sister, Violet Ormond, gave it to the community in 1938, explaining that it had been painted during a cruise and was from a church on the coast of Portugal. Sargent apparently dashed it off one afternoon. The stark white wall of the chapel beneath a stone window emphasises the dereliction of the cross.

The Community auctioned it (December 2009) and later sold off his four-foot-high sculpted crucifix, mounted on an altar retable, which had served as the model for the central panel of a mural in Boston Public Library (1903). It is good that that the painting, at least, has come back to the north of England.

The Spanish Gallery, Market Place, Bishop Auckland, Co. Durham, and the Auckland Project.