Skip to main content

Zurbaran Paintings (Auckland Castle)

Volume 526: debated on Thursday 31 March 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Dunne.)

When I requested this debate I did not know about the Church Commissioners’ announcement, and I wondered whether there should be a question mark in the title. However, I was just looking at the Order Paper, and I see that we now have a full stop, which is the right thing to have. I am absolutely delighted by the announcement that the Church Commissioners have made to secure in perpetuity the Zurbarans at Auckland castle.

Every politician dreams of receiving a brown envelope containing leaked documents that they can reveal to the press, but when I received mine and saw that it contained proposals for the sale of these national treasures in my constituency I was really alarmed. I was clear that I did not want my constituency to be asset-stripped. Equally, I do not hold to the view that every cultural icon should reside within the orbit of the M25.

Jonathan Ruffer has most generously provided the money to keep the Zurbarans in Auckland castle. When I read the interview with him in The Spectator and saw his emotional response to the story, I felt vindicated that I had given the documents to The Northern Echo. I hope that the Under-Secretary will note the importance of having a free, independent-minded press that can speak up for local communities at all times.

Many people have been thanked over the past 24 hours, but I particularly want to thank the anonymous person who sent me those documents. We will never know who it was, but they took a risk, and it was definitely a risk worth taking. I know that their action annoyed the Church Commissioners, and I can understand that, but the time and effort that have gone into solving the problem mean that we now have a much better solution than we would have had a year ago. I hope that the Church Commissioners feel that as well. Obviously, it is the mission of the Church to provide pastoral care at parish level, but it is also its mission to speak the great truths about humanity and to use art and stories to do that. Now we have the opportunity to do both those things.

In making the case for keeping the pictures in Auckland castle, and setting out our vision for a regenerated Bishop Auckland, we knocked on many doors. We were immensely strengthened and supported by the sympathetic hearing that we received from everyone from the Archbishop of Canterbury down. All the bishops were immensely supportive, as were the directors of the British Museum and the National Gallery. Another positive outcome is the fact that we have built up a well of support that will help us in progressing the project to create something very beautiful in Bishop Auckland.

I want to assure the hon. Lady that there is equal delight right across the north-east that this wonderful philanthropic gesture has been made, and that this happy outcome has been secured.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support; I know that he has spoken about this matter in our region.

This is an important day, because the pictures have historical significance. Francisco de Zurbaran was a Spanish counter-reformation painter whose paintings can be seen across the world. I went to Chartres in the new year and saw one of his paintings there. Of course, it was in the bishop’s residence. The collection in Auckland castle is particularly special because 12 of the 13 paintings belong together. The series is known as Jacob and his 12 sons. The long dining room at the castle was specially modified to hold the pictures.

Bishop Trevor, who bought the pictures, had previously lived in Downing street, but he became Bishop of Durham in the middle of the 18th century. He did a lot of work at Auckland castle. He built a deer house, which probably meant that the deer were better housed than the tenants at that time, and he bought those fantastic pictures. It is believed that he did that out of solidarity with the Jewish community. Like all the Anglican bishops, he supported the legislation to extend the civil rights of the Jewish community, and he preached on the suffering of those in the Jewish diaspora. When the so-called Jew Bill was repealed by the Tories, the bishop bought the pictures and hung them in the long dining room at Auckland castle.

The director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, who had the paintings displayed in London in 1994, has called them the

“first multicultural document of Britain”.

That is why, if these paintings had been lost, moved or exported, it would have been a loss not only to the town of Bishop Auckland and our region, but to the nation. That is why I am extremely grateful to Jonathan Ruffer for his extraordinary generosity, which has enabled the establishment of a trust that will keep the paintings in the castle in perpetuity.

I would like to ask the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), if he has any more details about the objects of the trust or who the trustees might be. Does he know how many of the priests employed through the money that Mr Ruffer donated will be in the Durham diocese?

The research undertaken by John McDonnell, QC, in recent months has shown that Bishop Trevor undoubtedly intended the pictures to stay at Auckland castle. As a result of this development, the legal issues surrounding the pictures will not be tested at this juncture. I want to note, however, that the case for incorporating the pictures as part of the grade I listing at Auckland castle still stands.

I want to pay particular tribute to Bob McManners, who is the chair of the Bishop Auckland Civic Society. He wrote a book about the history of the paintings and it turned out to be a fantastically valuable campaigning tool, which played a vital part in the success of this campaign.

The importance of inter-faith dialogue has obviously grown in the last 250 years, while our understanding of the difficulties and dilemmas of building a successful multicultural society has also developed. As well as having the paintings in Auckland castle as a symbol of commitment to inter-faith dialogue and multiculturalism, I hope there will also be space to allow people of all different faiths to meet together.

The land on which Auckland castle stands was gifted by King Canute to the Church. I particularly like this detail, because my mum, who is Danish, comes from the same village as King Canute. Since 1138, the bishops of Durham have made Auckland castle their first residence. Over the years, the bishops of Durham grew in power and authority, and temporal power backed up spiritual power. County Durham was the last place in England to send Members of Parliament to Westminster. Some people think that politics in our area is still somewhat behind that of the rest of the country!

What will attract people to visit the castle is not just its very interesting history, as the main reason people will come is that it is in a fantastically beautiful spot. Auckland castle is a Gothic building, with probably the largest private chapel in Europe, and it is situated in beautiful park land on a wooded promontory overlooking the river Wear.

The partnership proposed between Durham county council and the National Trust is a really positive development, alongside the generous donations of other individuals and other institutions. Another question for the Second Church Estates Commissioner is whether the Church Commissioners will be open to the possibility of involving other people in the partnership. I am thinking, in particular, of the contribution that the World Monuments Fund might be able to make.

I had originally thought that the Second Church Estates Commissioner rather than the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), would respond to this debate. I hope that the Minister is in his place to tell us that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is going to make a financial contribution as well as a moral one, so I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

The attraction of this project is that it is multi-layered: it is of historic interest, religious interest and artistic interest. Particularly exciting is the offer made by the director of the National Gallery, Dr Nicholas Penny, to lend paintings to Auckland castle so that we can turn it into an artistic centre.

For the people of Bishop Auckland this is obviously a question of identity, but it also presents a great opportunity to regenerate a town that has suffered significantly in recent years. Unemployment has been high, and several of our wards are among the 10% that are the most deprived in the country. It is easy to underestimate the number of jobs that can be created from tourism because they are generally in small businesses, but there are already 12,000 such jobs in County Durham, and tourism brings in £650 million a year. I am sure that we can we build on that. It would be fantastic if we could create a trail from Lindisfarne down through Jarrow to Durham and on to Bishop Auckland, repeating the journey of St Cuthbert’s shrine.

I want to thank many people for contributing to today’s happy outcome, not least the Second Church Estates Commissioner—as well as the secretary to the Church Commissioners, whom I see sitting in the Box. They came to Bishop Auckland in the snow, they pushed my car, and they listened to what was said by people in Woodhouse Close about why they wanted to hold on the paintings and have public access to the castle.

I thank my parliamentary colleagues in both Houses for their support, and I thank Durham county council, which has done a great deal of work but has a great deal more to do. I thank people throughout the country who have written to us and prayed for us. I thank Barbara Laurie, Marjorie Kellett, Ann Golightly and the many others who organised the petition. Most of all, however, I thank my constituents for defending their heritage so staunchly. After 900 years a Bishop of Durham will still live at the heart of our community, which is fantastic, because you can’t take the Bishop out of Bishop Auckland.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this timely debate, and thank her for her kind personal comments. She has been a tireless and dedicated campaigner on this issue on behalf of those who live close to Auckland castle and those who come to enjoy it, its grounds and, especially, its paintings. As she made clear, both she and the people of Bishop Auckland, along with those in the wider region, are delighted about today’s announcement by the Church Commissioners that they are working to keep the Zurbaran paintings in Auckland Castle.

As Second Church Estates Commissioner, I am well aware of the strength and intensity of feeling that the castle and its paintings inspire in the hon. Lady and her constituents, and indeed in the diocese and the wider Church. It has been my pleasure to work with the hon. Lady on this issue in recent months. I was privileged to visit her constituency last November to view the paintings, along with other representatives of the Church Commissioners.

As the hon. Lady said, it is proposed that the 13 paintings by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran that currently hang in the Long Dining Room of Bishop Auckland castle should stay there, thanks to—I do not think that we can underline this too much—an extraordinary act of generosity by Jonathan Ruffer, chief executive of Ruffer. The paintings will be sold to a new trust, which will have a specific obligation to ensure their preservation and continued public display at Auckland castle. We are immensely grateful to him for an act of generosity that will ensure continued public access to those works of art in their natural home.

While I am giving credit where it is due, let me take the opportunity to thank Sir Paul Nicholson, Lord Lieutenant of Durham, for his chairmanship of the working party; Christopher Higgins, Vice-Chancellor and warden of Durham university; the Right Rev. Mark Bryant, Bishop of Jarrow; and all the others whose help, advice and assistance in recent months have proved invaluable in securing this resolution. I also thank my fellow Church Commissioners who have engaged so actively in the matter.

Although the Church Commissioners are significant owners of land and property, they are not, by and large, in the business of owning, maintaining and displaying paintings. I have made that point in the House before during questions on this issue, and I will return to it in a moment. However, I should first make a short detour. The Church Commissioners as we know them today came about in 1948 as the result of the merger of two bodies: Queen Anne’s Bounty and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The older of these, Queen Anne’s Bounty, was created in 1704 out of concern for the poverty of the clergy and the disrepair of their parsonages. Over a century later, Parliament created the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to manage the historic assets in order to make financial provision for the Church’s mission in areas of need and opportunity as well as to fund bishops and some cathedral costs, and in order to oversee a reorganisation of dioceses and cathedrals. Financing clergy pensions came much later.

The theme running throughout our 300-year history, which is very much alive today, is of supporting the Church’s mission throughout England. Today, the commissioners are responsible for all clergy pensions earned up to 1998, the stipends and working costs of all the Church of England’s bishops, the housing costs of all diocesan bishops and support of their local and national ministries, cathedral grants, stipends to cathedral deans and canons—and the list goes on. Currently, the Church Commissioners manage an investment portfolio of about £5 billion, largely in property and shares, which is derived from the Church’s historic resources. From this sum, they are able to contribute about 16p in every pound to the cost of the Church of England’s mission, with most of the balance coming from the generous giving of today’s parishioners. The majority of the commissioners’ other assets are in land and property, and as such they are not readily available to fund the day-to-day running of the Church of England. As a result of their investment performance, the Church Commissioners have distributed £31 million more each year to the Church for the past 10 years than if they had performed as an average fund. The point I would make in connection with all of this is that, although the Church of England owns and maintains about 16,000 places of worship and is responsible for 45% of this country’s grade I listed buildings—and so is arguably the nation’s leading heritage organisation, a point my hon. Friend the Minister and colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport well understand—the holding of heritage assets, of which the Zurbaran paintings are a prime example, has never been central to the commissioners’ asset portfolio.

The hon. Lady described very well the history of how the Zurbarans came to Auckland castle. The £125 spent by Bishop Trevor in 1756 was clearly a very worthwhile investment, because what it bought is now worth £15 million. With the moneys released by the sale of the Zurbaran paintings to the proposed trust, it will be possible to fund 10 additional clergy in perpetuity and to offer ministry to deprived areas of the nation. Doubtless some of the benefit of this arrangement will be enjoyed by communities in the north-east.

It is a matter of public record that the Church Commissioners have been reviewing the suitability of Auckland castle as the home of the Bishop of Durham and as the base for his local and national ministry. As part of this, the commissioners have been in discussions with representatives of the diocese and other local people. With the question of the Zurbaran paintings settled, the Church Commissioners now intend to work towards a future for the castle that not only maintains the strong and historic working link between it, the Bishop and the diocese, but that helps the site become, in the words of the hon. Lady herself,

“the focus for the development of tourism and an engine of regeneration.”

I look forward to working with her as future plans develop, and with heritage bodies, the county council, the people of Bishop Auckland and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The hon. Lady mentioned other organisations, and, indeed, other heritage organisations wish to be involved with this regeneration project, which I am sure would be welcomed.

I should stress that Auckland castle will remain the base for the Bishop of Durham’s ministry; he will continue to work there and pray in the chapel there, so it will be the centre of his work. I should also stress that what happens at Auckland castle sets no precedent in respect of the continued assessments and feasibility studies of all bishops’ residences. The commissioners continue to have a responsibility to ensure that the Church’s diocesan bishops are housed appropriately so as to enable them to fulfil their ministry locally and nationally. They are subject to a regular review process, and that process will continue, with decisions made on an individual basis.

I conclude by quoting from a letter that appeared in the Church Times on 25 March 2011 from the Rev. Richard Deimel, a local vicar in Bishop Auckland. Having been unhelpfully misquoted by a different newspaper—we might all sympathise with that—he wanted to set the record straight. Given that he makes some insightful and eminently sensible points, they are worth repeating. He said:

“The question of the sale of the Zurbarán paintings from Auckland Castle is complex and sensitive. I am a Vicar of five parishes from the edge of Bishop Auckland to Hamsterley forest. People here feel that they have very little significant heritage or art or architecture in their community. Many are very proud of the paintings and the castle. They find meaning and identity in their story. It would be incredibly damaging, indeed a bit like a kick in the teeth from the church and the state, if these left the North East or went into private hands.

I fully support attempts to build a partnership to retain them in some kind of shared ownership. This would be a real boost to the local community and economy. It would, also release the Church from the responsibility of being a custodian of heritage, because that is not the purpose of the Church.”

I agree with all those sentiments and I hope that those in the north-east will feel that that is what we have managed to deliver on. I have confidence that what the commissioners have announced today will reassure not only Rev. Richard Deimel, but the hon. Lady and her constituents, and all those petitioners in the region and beyond who have made their concerns known. What has been achieved is, I hope, in the best interests of the north-east, the Church and the Church in the north-east.

This is one of those rare debates when the House can unite in unalloyed joy and pay tribute to the extraordinary efforts of a number of people and organisations in producing an extraordinarily good news story. Some of the speeches we have heard have, to a certain extent, sounded like Oscar speeches, because many people have had to be thanked. Of course the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) could not thank herself, so let me thank her for all her efforts in securing Zurbaran’s paintings. I had not quite appreciated the vigour of her campaign and I listened to her speech with great joy as I heard what an extraordinary campaign she had led. When the roll call—perhaps I should say the battle honours—of those who saved the Zurbaran paintings comes to be written, I hope that her name will be prominent.

Francisco de Zurbaran, a contemporary of Velazquez and El Greco, was honorary painter to King Philip IV of Spain, who hailed him as the king of painters. Although fashion turned against him, his reputation was restored by Napoleon Bonaparte, who acquired many of his paintings, some of which are on display in the Louvre. As the hon. Lady pointed out, the Zurbarans at Auckland castle came there by way of Bishop Trevor. They were completed in the 1640s and turned up again only in 1720, in the possession of Sir William Chapman, a director of the ill-fated South Sea Company. So sometimes a financial crash can have a silver lining, because they were auctioned in 1756 and bought by Bishop Trevor, the Bishop of Durham.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, Bishop Trevor had persuaded his fellow bishops in the House of Lords to support the “Jew Bill”—the Jewish Naturalisation Bill—which would allow Jewish immigrants to naturalise as British citizens. The support of the bishops proved crucial to the Bill being passed. Bishop Trevor bought 12 of the 13 Zurbarans now on display in Auckland castle for £124 to demonstrate his sympathy for the disfranchised Jews following the repeal of that legislation in 1755. Somehow one painting—the painting of Benjamin—eluded him. Bishop Trevor was so desperate to complete his set of Zurbarans that he commissioned the foremost portrait painter of the day, Arthur Pond, to paint a facsimile of the final one in the series, for which he paid £21.

I know that the Church Commissioners understood the important considerations and strength of public feeling over the future of the paintings, so I was as delighted as anyone to learn what had happened. The Church Commissioners have announced that they are working on exciting new plans for the future of Auckland castle and I do not think we should lose sight of that. Not only have the Zurbaran paintings been saved, but the partnership with Durham county council and the National Trust will, we hope, establish innovative uses for the castle and grounds in a new venture that would not only continue to care for the paintings but enable much greater public access for a wider range of activities.

I must obviously take this opportunity to express official thanks on behalf of the Government to Jonathan Ruffer for his donation. It is particularly astonishing given that, according to the article in today’s edition of The Spectator, he brought them sight unseen, but I gather he is in the north-east this weekend and will see the paintings he has saved for the nation and the north-east. I commend the article in The Spectator as showing an example of what it means to be a philanthropist.

May I also thank the Rothschild Foundation, which has donated £1 million towards an endowment for Auckland castle, and Lord Rothschild himself? The cultural life of this nation would be significantly poorer without the work of someone like Jacob Rothschild, not only because of the money that he gives but because of the money that he encourages others to give. I do not know Jonathan Ruffer, but he is a self-effacing man and he said of Jacob Rothschild in the interview today:

“The battle honours in all of this go to him, not me”.

There is certainly some truth in that, because Jacob Rothschild has been at the heart of our cultural world for many decades and continues to be an incredibly important figure.

May I also thank the National Gallery, which I know is looking to help and support this venture—possibly with loans from its collection? I also thank the Church Commissioners, who continue to be in conversation with the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and a number of other parties to consider how further funds can be raised. My Department, I am afraid, is not in a position to give direct financial support, but we have been kept closely in touch with developments and we will continue to work with all parties to broker some support. It might also be appropriate to pay tribute to Hillary Bauer, who is herself a cultural icon in my Department and has done a great deal to support these developments.

This is an unequivocally good news story. Joy has almost come out of the heavens, one could say. Jonathan Ruffer stands testament to philanthropy in this country; the hon. Lady stands testament as a campaigning MP for her constituency; the Church Commissioners stand testament as an organisation that is prepared to listen and negotiate before making a final decision; and the work of Durham county council, the National Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and everyone else involved stands testament to what can be achieved by co-operation.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.