English bishop pleads for agreement on Zurbaran paintings

By Trevor Grundy
Posted Dec 15, 2011

[Ecumenical News International] The Anglican bishop of Durham is urging a wealthy businessman and the commissioners who manage the Church of England’s assets to “look afresh at what can be done” to keep a set of 17th-century religious paintings in northeast Britain as the center of a planned historical visitor attraction.

Bishop Justin Welby’s intervention follows reports that Jonathan Ruffer, an investment fund manager, has withdrawn an offer of 15 million British pounds ($23.25 million) to save a set of paintings called “Jacob and his Sons” by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran. The paintings have hung at Auckland Castle, see of the Anglican bishops of Durham, for the last 255 years.

“The disappointing news of the breakdown of the current arrangements for … Ruffer to buy the Zurbaran paintings re-opens the question about the future of the paintings and of Auckland Castle. Everything possible still needs to be done to ensure that the paintings, bought by Bishop Richard Trevor of Durham in the 18th Century, remain on the site designed for them, and that Auckland Castle is developed as a major cultural and tourist resort for the area,” Welby said.

Nine months ago, Ruffer, who is Anglican, agreed to buy the paintings, form a charity called the Zurbaran Trust and keep the artworks at the castle, which was to be the centerpiece of a project to attract visitors to the rundown region in northeast England. Durham also is the location of 900-year-old Durham Cathedral.

However, in a statement issued to The Times and The Northern Echo newspapers on 7 December, Ruffer said, “I have no option but to withdraw my offer. This is a great sadness and an embarrassment.”

Both the Church Commissioners, who manage about five billion British pounds in assets, and Ruffer are sticking to prepared statements and refusing to answer questions about the nature of the quarrel.They are understood to involve Ruffer’s exact role in the Auckland Castle Project and his insistence that the castle and its grounds were to go into public ownership.

“He (Ruffer) says the Church Commissioners keep introducing conditions to the sale of the paintings and the takeover of the 12th-century castle,” wrote Chris Lloyd, deputy editor of The Northern Echo. “If Ruffer withdraws, the commissioners may be tempted to put the castle and paintings on the open market, with the likelihood that the Zurbarans would go overseas, perhaps fetching more than 15 million pounds,” Lloyd wrote.

Despite Ruffer’s declaration, a statement from the Church Commissioners on 8 December said negotiations are still continuing.

Earlier this year, The Northern Echo reported that the Church Commissioners were planning to sell the paintings to raise funds to train more clergy in northeast England. Thousands of people signed a petition asking that the paintings remain at the castle.