03 May 2011

Church of England, Zurbaran and cashing in on heritage

Bishop Auckland is a small town in County Durham, only 19 kms from the city of Durham, so it will not surprise us that much of the town's early history seems to have been influenced by the Bishops of Durham and their estate. But it wasn't until 1832 that Auckland Castle, which had been their medieval home, was totally rebuilt for the Bishops. The old banqueting hall became the chapel.

In the interim, in 1756, Bishop of Durham Richard Trevor bought a series of portraits of Jacob and his 12 sons, painted in 1640-45 by one of my favourite Spanish  artists  Francisco de Zurbaran (1598–1664). According to ARCAblog, these paintings were looted. In 1756 an English ship seized cargo from a Spanish vessel, including the 13 Zurbaráns. The captured paintings were offered for sale in England and the only one of the 13 portraits not bought by Durham was that of Benjamin. I have no idea why Benjamin was sold separately to the Duke of Ancaster, but it can be seen in Grimsthorpe Castle Lincs to this day.

Delighted with these superb works, Bishop Trevor naturally placed his treasures in Auckland Castle. In fact he specifically had the long dining room redesigned in 1760 so that the viewer would be able to concentrate on these deeply religious pictures without distraction. This is fascinating. For the early decades of Zurbaran's career, his works had been very popular with Spanish churches, monasteries and religious colleges. But in his later years, tastes changed. His rather austere and severe Mannerist Baroque style, a la Caravaggio, became old fashioned and the commissions dried up. By the time he died in 1664, the Zurbaran family was impoverished.

Zurbaran, four of Jacob's son, 200 x 100 cm each (8’ tall)

Historians have wondered why an important bishop in the Church of England would want portraits of Jacob and his sons, patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. Surely these portraits represented a powerful symbol of Judaism, and worse still, they were painted by a deeply Catholic artist at the peak of his popularity. So why would they be placed in the heart of muscular Anglicanism?

According to the chairman of Bishop Auckland's Civic Society Dr Robert McManners, we must examine the timing of the Bishop's purchase. Zurbaran’s livelihood was largely derived from commissions from the established Catholic church in Spain. Yet the artist meticulously painted these symbols of Judaism at a time when the practice of the Jewish religion was outlawed by Papal Bull and enforced by the Spanish Inquisition. McManners noted that Zurbaran had sympathy for down-trodden Jewish people in his local community, and admired the great risks that Catholic artist took to his reputation and livelihood.

A century later Bishop Trevor and his fellow bishops sponsored the Jewish Naturalisation Act of 1753. The Act gave disenfranchised immigrant Jews, often escaping persecution in their own countries, the same rights as those born in England. Unfortunately this progressive  legislation was repealed the very next year, and within a couple of years, the Durham bishop bought the paintings!  McManners' theory was that Bishop Trevor and Francisco de Zurbaran shared something important – they were both thumbing their noses at their Establishment Churches.

Money is always short in any large organisation; as Art History Today has shown, everyone is planning or has been selling off their art. In 2001, the Church Commissioners in Durham decided to cash in on their easily sold art assets (for some £20m). People with a sense of national history and art heritage wanted to keep the collection together, in the Church, at all costs. But it took nine years of intense lobbying before the commissioners gave in, largely due to a £15m donation by investment manager Jonathan Ruffer. Jonathan Ruffer’s contribution was made through a new charitable trust, called the Zurbarán Trust, for the benefit of the people of the North East. For the moment at least, Zurbaran can rest in peace.

Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland

Readers will enjoy Dr Robert McManners, The Zurbarans at Auckland Castle, obtainable from Bishop Auckland Town Hall.


Nicholas V. said...

How fascinating! I alos like Zurbaráns work and I had absolutely no idea of the treasures that found their way to such an unlikely place in an adventurous manner.
It is satisfying to read that the funds were found to retain their paintings in what has been their home for so long...

Hels said...

agreed. I came upon Zurbaran years ago. The head of my department rang me on a Thursday to say that the Spanish art history lecturer was sick. Could I give the 17th century lectures, starting the next Monday?

I read every book ever written about Murillo, Velázquez, Ribera, Zurbaran etc etc. And loved the art :)

artlover15 said...

I can find plenty of Zurbarans on line, but hardly any of the Durham series. Any reference?

Hels said...

you are correct. Bloody difficult to find! I found "Bishop Auckland Castle - The Zurbaran Paintings of the Patriarchs" at

Alas the colours are way too dark and the detailed lines are blurred.

Shelley said...

Living near Newcastle upon Tyne, we're not that far from Durham and we've driving through Bishop Auckland any number of times.... Must get down there and visit more of the sites this summer!

Hels said...


if it wasn't for the huge and very generous donation of Jonathan Ruffer, I would have said to get yourself to Bishop Auckland sooner rather than later. Now that Bishop Richard Trevor's art legacy is safe (for however long), take your time looking around :)

Hermes said...

I like them and I suspect it is hard for us now to read exactly what he saw in them.

M said...

These paintings have such an interesting history, especially because of the looting. Do you happen to know anything about Zurbaran's popularity in the UK? I wonder if Zurbaran was popular (or well-known) in England before the 1756 looting.

Like you, I've been a fan of Zurbaran for many years. I've always considered his work in a Spanish context, though. It's fun to consider his paintings in a new country (and context).

Hels said...

nod. Not only did Zurbaran's style become old fashioned, his subject matter (pious saints in meditation or religious martyrs) became old fashioned as well. However if he had become all Watteau-esque in his work, Zurbaran would have lost his monumentality.

Every artist is of his age, I suppose. Each is popular, fades in obscurity, rediscovered 100 years later and becomes hugely popular again.

Hels said...

what an interesting question.

Zurbaran's work was so pious, so Catholic, so severe, I cannot imagine that it would have appealed to English taste. Many of Zurbaran's saints and monks were indeed exported out of Spain, but as far as I know ...only to austere Catholic religious orders in South America.

But then if I was Catholic in England in 1700, I would have been keeping my religious taste in art quiet too.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
This is an absolutely fascinating account of an artist, Zurbarán, of whom we had known nothing and of religious intrigue. We have been most interested to read of this piece of art history and are pleased to note that, at least for now, the paintings have a secure future.

Durham Cathedral is one of our all time favourite British cathedrals and when we are next in that part of the country we shall seek out Auckland Castle without a doubt.

Anonymous said...

Another greedy grab for cash, taking away treasures from the people of the north. Glad it failed.

Hels said...

Jane, Lance and Anon,

Thanks for commenting.

The point of the deaccessioning argument is that hard times are indeed ahead for all the arts. In times of financial crisis, it is possible that the cultural lifeblood of a nation will be drained away by a right wing government, forcing local councils and other organisations to take unwanted and unpopular measures.

But the Durham bishopric was just trying to cash in on assets they thought they could afford to lose. Thankfully the Zurbarans were saved but it won't stop other deaccessions in Durham and elsewhere. Organisations will do what they have to do to survive :(

The Virtual Victorian said...

Such wonderful paintings!

Kristin H said...

Time changes and the value changes, the light and the people in Zurbarans paintings made me think of a living Norwegian artist, Odd Nerdrum somehow.

Great story, thank you!

And how exciting that you teach 17th Century art.

Hels said...

Virtual Victorian and Kristin,

thanks for commenting.

times and values certainly do change. Rembrandt and El Greco died impoverished and were thrown into paupers' graves. Zurbaran was much loved, then he was ignored and hidden away, now he is admired again. Nothing stands still.

John hopper said...

As you say, times are hard and art pieces quickly come on to the market in these periods. It is unfortunate, as these depressions tend not to last for long periods, but with knee jerk reactions as far as public art collections are concerned, we end up with nothing in our galleries and all in private hands.

Hels said...

thanks for that.

I actually think you have a rather nasty government at the moment. It seems to have an ideological, and not just a financial commitment, to ignore or ruin public organisations. And this is true in all the areas that citizens care about eg public transport, the arts, universities.

So I would say that even if citizens hadn't seen the Zurbarans, or had seen them but didn't like them, that they should be kept at all cost. The principle of safeguarding the community's assets from grasping profiteers is an important one.

By the way I do see the irony in saying this, given that these paintings may well have been looted from a Spanish ship in 1756 :)

Ja said...

I certainly hope all the people who have commented and those who have interest in Zurbaran, will find further interest in the extremely rich history of Durham, its beautiful Cathedral and Bishop's Palace. It would be folly to only look at the paintings without a full study of their place.

Hels said...

you are absolutely correct. I should have thought of saying that myself.

Anonymous said...

For additional information regarding this series, including its provenance and some necessary contextualization, I would suggest consulting the catalogue that accompanied the 1995 exhibition of these paintings at the Prado Museum, (Madrid, Museo del Prado. "Zurbarán: Las doce tribus de Israel. Jacob y sus hijos." Comps. G. Finaldi, et al. February 16 – April 30, 1995), especially pages 9–11. Early modern audiences were interested in images of the "lost tribes" of Israel for a variety of reasons, however, any discussion of this iconography must address the following two points: the widespread belief that the inhabitants of the New World were descendants of these exiled communities; and the long tradition within Catholic humanism of relating Old Testament patriarchs to the apostles.

Hels said...


that is terrific advice. Firstly I didn't realise that the Zurbarans had gone back to Spain for a visit and had been exhibited in the Prado in 1995.

Secondly the widespread belief in the 17th and 18th century that the inhabitants of the New World were descendants of these exiled communities is not so widespread _now_. Occasionally you will hear it today about rather isolated communities, like Ethiopia.

I hope some good soul translated the catalogue essays into English and other languages.

Hels said...

Country Life (8/12/2010) has an article on the Zurbarans. NB the magazine shows the splendid Judah portrait.

And following Trevor and the other bishops successfully supporting that controversial piece of legislation permitting Jews to naturalise themselves, leaving the paintings hanging was a calculated statement of Bishop Trevor's sympathies. "There they have stayed in the dining room on public display to the present day, a tangible celebration of an important moment in British social history and of its Jewish community".

Hels said...

Art History Today (24/10/2014) reported that a new gallery showing major works of art from Spain's golden age is to open in a former bank in Bishop Auckland, County Durham. The gallery will be built by investment manager and art lover Jonathan Ruffer, who owns nearby Auckland Castle. He hopes some paintings will come on loan from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain's national gallery.


Rosie Anderson said...

I hope you are keeping up to date with things in Bishop Auckland! Retaining the castle and the Zurbarans was just the start. There is now the wonderful night show, Kynren, where 1000 volunteers have joined together to create a marvellous explanation of the history of England (based on a similar show at Puy de Fou in France) Plus, building work is going ahead on the new museum of fath at the castle, a new welcome building and a gallery of mining art, to celebrate the skills of our local Pitmen Painters. The Spanish Gallery and Centre for Research will open later this year. Bishop Auckland was very lucky the day Jonathan Ruffer decided to buy the Zurbarans.
Really enjoyed reading your post. My husband and I are working with a group of volunteers to make a film about the changing face of Bishop Auckland. That's how I stumbled on you!

Hels said...


Zurbaran was one of my all-time favourite artists, but I have not lectured on Spanish art for a few years now. So I will be very keen to inspect the Spanish Gallery and Centre for Research, as soon as it opens. Thank you.