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