The Spanish Acquisition

By Foster

Bishop Auckland: an unassuming market town at the heart of the Vale of Durham – perhaps one of the least likely places you would expect to find a nationally significant collection of Spanish artwork. Yet over the next few years this area will see the unfolding of major developments that are set to revive its ever-dwindling economy and put its name back on the map as an important location for fine art, both within the UK and beyond its borders.

Set to open its doors to the public in the summer of 2018, The Auckland Castle Trust is injecting £5.5 million into the creation of an exhibition that will present masterpieces by several major names in Spanish Golden Age art, including El Greco, Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán to the public. The latter artist’s work has already played a major role in the history of this town: another reason why investment banker and philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer, is dedicated to funding such a noteworthy project.

Despite the gallery’s seemingly bizarre location, Ruffer insists that the gallery will in fact be building on Bishop’s existing heritage. In 2010, Ruffer acquired Zurbarán’s individual portraits of Jacob and his Twelve Sons, now hanging in Auckland Castle. They were bought in the 18th century by a previous bishop that lived in the castle to promote religious tolerance towards the Jews in a community dominated by Catholics. Ruffer has masterminded this new gallery in conjunction with another nearby exhibition on the history of religious faith that will open in three years’ time, remaining faithful to documenting the town’s past.

The chosen setting for this Spanish art gallery lies at the heart of the town in the charming Market Place, a three minutes’ walk away from Auckland Castle. The architects responsible for the construction of the gallery space will be preserving the striking terracotta Victorian Gothic facade of the old Backhouses’ Bank whilst renovating its interior with a modernised extension through the adjacent building. This will allow the new gallery to house larger works as well as the paintings already purchased at auction such as Christ on the Cross, by El Greco, and others that will be on loan from other galleries, for example Salvador Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross. The curatorial director, Chris Ferguson, looks forward to mounting the exhibition and collaborating with The Prado Museum and other galleries, stating that ‘this is like a sacred mission for [him]: to help regenerate this town and the region as a whole.’

Image by john Lord via Flickr Creative Commons
Image by john Lord via Flickr Creative Commons

Once fuelled by the coal industry, Bishop Auckland has suffered in recent years following the recession. Disheartened residents can only hope that Bishop Auckland will rise from the ashes as a result of the efforts being made to build on its rich history. The town is committed to investing its resources to help restore Bishop Auckland to its former glory. The local council is working with the town’s college to set up Auckland Academy in a bid to mobilise the youth and provide them with apprenticeships, thus helping the community by preparing them to handle the predicted influx of visitors.

Although the residents welcome the prospect of rebooting their local economy, many of them doubt that these new tourist attractions will encourage the anticipated 200,000 tourists a year to flock from far and wide to see the exhibition. The collection will be of much interest to art enthusiasts, but whether the changes being made to entice potential visitors will inspire them enough to make the journey to Bishop Auckland is another matter. It is an ambitious undertaking to say the least, however Ruffer says that he takes pleasure in the challenge ahead, especially since holding an exhibition of such grandeur is a privilege usually reserved for the prestigious galleries of London. It is estimated that this cultural investment will raise roughly £3 million annually, so the town’s residents are anxious to see the project lift off the ground and take effect.
So, whether art enthusiasts do decide to flock from far and wide to lay their eyes on this exquisite exhibition or not, Bishop Auckland’s new gallery will be able to boast the largest collection of Spanish paintings in Britain – a dazzling asset to the art scene of the North East.


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