My house is close by Auckland Castle – the home of the Bishop of Durham - which, in the last thirty years. has been part of our family experience. I have have walked in the adjacent Bishop’s Park in all seasons. The park and its Deer House feature in several of my novels. not least my latest An Englishwoman in France. My daughter was married in the Bishop’s Chapel and after the wedding we emerged into the winter dusk to sparklers and mince pies. I have sent visitors there in Autumn to relish the wonderful autumn colour made so because of the inspired planting two hundred years ago. I have been to concerts and events there and walked off many a dark feeling on its wandering pathways.
I admired a series of thirteen rather dark paintings in the dining room – the inspired purchase of a former bishop. These were eventually cleaned to reveal thirteen portraits of Sevillian citizens by the Spanish painter Zurbaran – to represent Jacob and his twelve sons – founding fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. They were originally destined for South America but by a series of coincidences - including piracy – became the property of this bishop.
In a recent example of what is a modern brand of piracy. the Church Commissioners attempted to sell the paintings, now valued at fifteen million pounds, to the highest bidder. A campaign began to swell among to local people, led by Dr Bob McManners of the Civic Society. Then local and County councillors. the local MP and many others swelled the ranks. The Northern Echo lived up to its own heritage as a campaigning newspaper and took up and endorsed the cause, providing the much needed oxygen of wider publicity.
I sensed a helplessness, a hopelessness here and there. After all where stood the needs and identity of people in a small town in opposition to the ravages of asset stripping bureaucrats of the institutional church? The campaign was well meaning but really a lost cause wasn’t it?
And Lo! there was a miracle!
As Chris Lloyd reports in today’s Northern Echo:
‘Zurbarans saved - Auckland Castle to become major attraction
TWO wealthy financiers have teamed up to save the Zurbarans and potentially turn Auckland Castle into a major heritage tourist attraction, The Northern Echo can reveal.
Evangelical christian Jonathan Ruffer has agreed to buy the Zurbarans for Auckland Castle.
Mr Ruffer, 59, was born in Stokesley in North Yorkshire, believes the masterworks should be put on public display.
It is hoped that there were be several sources of money for the Auckland Castle project, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Department for Culture, but £1m has already been pledged by the Rothschild Foundation, a philanthropic organisation chaired by Lord Jacob Rothschild.’