Conservation United Kingdom

Auckland Castle opens with grand ambitions

Historic home of the bishops of Durham is restored, hopes to draw tourists with its exotic collection of Zurbaráns

Auckland Castle

In 2010, the future of Auckland Castle in north-east England and its collection of works by the Spanish master Francisco de Zurbarán hung in the balance. Many feared that the Church—the owner of the pictures and the property, home to the bishops of Durham for centuries—would realise its plans to sell off the building and 17th-century paintings to support its ministerial activities. Three years later, not only is restoration work on the property under way, but the castle (the foundations of which date to the Medieval period) and grounds opened to the public last month as a major new tourist destination in the region.

Jonathan Ruffer, the man who bought the castle and paintings for £11m and donated them to the Auckland Castle Trust and the Zurbarán Trust respectively, uses medical terminology to sum up the condition of the building when he bought it. “Acute is when a building is about to fall down and chronic is when it is, depressingly, getting worse decade upon decade. Auckland is a case of the chronic,” he says. He stresses that the building is not a ruin “by any stretch of the imagination”, but that repairs have been “done on a patch basis for the past 70 to 80 years”. He says he could spend £400,000 to £500,000 a year simply mending the castle, but that his plan is to revitalise it as part of a larger plan to regenerate the north-east. He estimates that the project will cost £39m on top of the £11m purchase price, and that 120,000 visitors a year are needed to cover running costs.

Shows of Spanish art

A permanent gallery will contextualise the castle’s famous large-scale Zurbaráns, painted between 1635 and 1640, during the Counter-Reformation. “The problem with the Zurbaráns is that they’re a bit like the Easter Island statues,” Ruffer says. “They’re big and unsettling and they make you smile, but where do they come from and what do you do with them?” The display will be a snapshot of what was being created in Europe between 1625 and 1650.

There will also be two exhibitions, one permanent and one changing. The permanent show will tell the story of faith in the UK. The first temporary show, “Sacred Encounters: the Pinnacle of Counter-Reformation Art in Europe”, will feature seven works, including three pieces by Jusepe de Ribera, painted around the same time as the Zurbaráns. The temporary shows will focus on Spanish Golden Age paintings and will feature loans from Ruffer’s collection as well as from institutions.

Ruffer wants the castle and the nearby Bowes Museum to become the places to see Spanish Golden Age paintings outside Spain, and he intends to acquire works for the Zurbarán Trust. The trust’s first acquisition, however, is a 1670s deposition scene by the French artist Charles Le Brun or a follower.

Revitalising the north-east: Jonathan Ruffer, the man who bought the castle and paintings for £11m and donated them to the Auckland Castle Trust and the Zurbarán Trust
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5 May 13
15:55 CET


This is splendid news. There are obvious synergies with not only the Bowes but also perhaps the University of Durham. Hooray for Mr Ruffer, and I look forward to a glorious future for Auckland Castle and the Zurbarans collected by the saintly Bishop Cosin in happier days for Church and State.

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