Goya's 'Prison Scene'

Durham’s El Dorado

Goya's 'Prison Scene'
Goya’s ‘Prison Scene’

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When I went on my Year Abroad to Spain this summer, I had a hard time telling people where I went to university.  ‘Duraaam?’ they asked quizzically. When told how to spell it they would excitedly declare ‘Ah siíííí, Dur-HAM, como Bucking-HAM!’ and then falter again as they realised they had no idea where it was.  Its proximity to Newcastle and Harry Potter fame were all I could offer as an idea of the place; so how exactly has it come about that County Durham is selling itself as a hotspot of Spanish art from the Golden Age?

Well, the recent symposium held on Spanish art from the 23rd to the 25th October drew together County Durham’s most prestigiously Golden age venues – Auckland Castle, the Bowes Museum and Durham University – to highlight the treasures on offer in all of their brilliance and historical context.  The Spanish Golden Age – sandwiched between the Reconquest’s illustrious vanquish of the last Muslim kingdom of Spain in 1492 and the steady decline of Habsburg Spain is the late 1600s – is now left to us only in the brilliance of its cultural heritage.

The most enigmatic works held in the county are without doubt the thirteen paintings of Jacob and his Twelve Sons by Spanish master Francisco de Zurbarán, held at Auckland Castle.  The Genesis story of Jacob blessing his sons and thereby founding the twelve tribes of Israel is of significance to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, but it is with the latter that we are faced with a somewhat anachronistic level of religious tolerance.  Depicting the beginning of the Jewish faith, these works were not only painted during the Spanish Inquisition’s livid ethnic cleansing of crypto-Jews but they were purchased by Bishop Richard Trevnor of Auckland Castle with his own money in 1756, in a time when the naturalisation of Jews in England was still a hotly contested topic.  Across centuries, and across Europe, individuals such as Zurburán and Trevnor were recognizing the capabilities of art to appeal to the public on an actively political and religious level.

how exactly has it come about that County Durham is selling itself as a hotspot of Spanish art from the Golden Age?

Further afield from Auckland Castle lies The Bowes Museum of Barnard Castle, which is home to the greatest number of Spanish works in the UK other than the National Gallery in London.  It notably holds works by El Greco and Goya, two of the finest artists ever to emerge from the peninsula.  Goya’s Prison Scene is particularly haunting; with the blurred features of the prisoners and the pale light of the arch in a world ofblack, the viewer is compelled to share in the prisoners’ own grim sentence of infinite solitude and squalor.  Critics battle as to when exactly Goya painted this in his career, but this is mostly irrelevant when you consider that it found a lasting home in a county with an unusually high concentration of prisons.  A coincidence, perhaps?  One cannot help but go back to the collection of other Spanish works at the Auckland and see a follower of Murillo’s ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’ perfectly depict a contrasting sign of hope in Christ’s illuminated yet utterly normal human face as he holds a crucifix; just an ordinary man, charged with an extraordinary sacrifice.

The Bowes Museum
The Bowes Museum

These works have all been in the county for a long time, but Durham is winning over new exposure down to Auckland Castle’s £4m gallery, due to open in early 2017, that shall focus on Golden Age works. A planning application to convert what is currently an old Barclays Bank building into this gallery is to be submitted to the council by the end of November and the proposal includes the founding of a new art research institute too. Auckland Castle is also showcasing a number of paintings never seen publicly before in ‘Hidden Treasures: Spanish Art in Country Durham’ (till 30th March),  while The Bowes Museum has an exhibition entitled ‘17th Century Painting: The Golden Age’ (till 5th February).

It goes without saying that Durham is now the place to be in the UK if you are an aficionado of Spanish art, especially the Golden Age.  I am due back from Spain this summer, and wonder if by the time I return Durham will no longer be ‘the city next to Newcastle’ but rather ‘a jewel in the crown of Spanish art.’  Something tells me – perhaps its my own experience of many Spaniards’ own blissful ignorance about their artistic heritage, much like ourselves about British art – that little may have changed.  But it is a working progress that individuals at Auckland Castle, the Bowes Museum and academics at our own university should all be applauded for.  Let the brilliance of the Spanish Golden Age, in all its splendour and its succour, shine once more.

Photographs: Bruce Johnson, AD Teasdale, Flickr

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