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£15m donor saves Zurbarán paintings for County Durham

Richard Moss | 00:00 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011

Zurbarán paintings

A donation by an investment trust manager means the Church no longer plans to sell paintings that have been part of North East history for 250 years.

For a long time it looked like County Durham would lose some of its greatest treasures.

The Church Commissioners appeared set on selling the Zurbarán paintings that have hung in the Bishop of Durham's Auckland Castle home since the 1750s.

But now an investment fund manager who was born in the North East has stepped in to save them for the region.

Jonathan Ruffer's £15m donation will allow the formation of a Zurbarán Trust.

That will stop the sale of the paintings, and has also probably helped to secure the future of Auckland Castle as a public building.

It seems Mr Ruffer has effectively bought the paintings and then given them back.

The Church of England says money from the Trust will also help them carry out more pastoral work in the North East's communities.

The pictures of Jacob and his sons were painted by Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán in the 17th Century, but have been hanging in Auckland Castle since 1756.

The Church Commissioners were looking at selling them to raise badly-needed funds. They could have raised upwards of £20m.

There was also talk they might look to sell Auckland Castle too.

But the Church says it has now also opened discussions to open the Castle up permanently to the public.

Auckland Castle

Auckland Castle could be opened up permanently to the public as a cultural centre for the North East.

It's talking to the National Trust, the National Gallery and Durham County Council about the project. The National Gallery has said it would be prepared to loan works to hang alongside the Zurbaráns.

Another donation of £1m from the Rothschild Foundation will help towards that goal, although the Church says it will need more money to make it happen.

Dr Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London and Acting Chair of the Commissioners, said: "Jonathan Ruffer's generosity has made that rarest of scenarios possible: the best of both worlds.

"There is now an opportunity to create a leading arts and heritage centre in the North East, and a chance for both the Church of England and the Zurbarán Trust to contribute to the wider spiritual, social and economic regeneration across the region."

The news comes ahead of a Commons debate about the future of the paintings.

The local MP Helen Goodman has been opposed to their sale from the start.

Now Helen Goodman can use her time in the House to celebrate victory.

The initial decision outraged many in the region and the BBC's Inside Out featured the campaign to keep them in the North East.

It also even drew in the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt at one stage and inspired a 3,000-name petition.

But of course it is an unlikely hero who has made this possible. Of all people, it's an investment fund manager who has come to the rescue.

Yet an internet search on Jonathan Ruffer's name suggests he's not a man who seeks much publicity.

He does have a North East connection as the Church Commissioners say he was born in Stokesley near Middlesbrough.

He has also clearly made a lot of money by running successful investment trusts.

From his Debrett's entry we also know he is 59, married with a daughter and now lives in Hertfordshire.

He's written a book called Babel: The Breaking of the Banks.

He also lists his hobbies as opera and sleeping, but gives little else away.

In fact, even in the world he's best known in - finance - he's described as an "unsung hero".

But from today, he will certainly be the toast of the North East.


  • Comment number 1.

    Well done Mr Ruffer - for showing that the correct way for funding arts is from the pockets of private individuals.

    This should be encouraged by all of us, wholeheartedly, so that there can be no more excuses for wasting taxpayers' money on such schemes.

  • Comment number 2.

    This is excellent news for the Northeast. I look forward to being able to visit next time I'm in the region.

    Mr Ruffer is a true philanthropist. But if all arts funding were left to the rich and big business then the country would be the poorer for it culturally. Philistines are alive, well and prospering (selfishly) in the UK.

  • Comment number 3.

    I wonder how much Francisco got paid for them in the first place?

    That then begs the question of how contemporary art should be valued.
    That in turn begs the question of what is art.
    Perhaps the mark of true art is that it is truly expensive.
    To be owned and disbursed by the wealthy.

  • Comment number 4.

    Art is expensive because individuals decide that they will pay more than the next person. That is fine when the individuals are using their own money or money belonging to the private organisation they represent but not when they are spending taxpayers' money which has been raised to provide essential services.

    On Tees-side we have millions of pounds, much of it taxpayer funded, being spent on the so called Tees Valley Giants, the first of which is merely a steel representation of a Spirograph image which any child could have come up with. We also have millions of pounds of taxpayer money being spent, every year, on mima - a gallery that thinks a piece of string glued onto a canvas is art.

    This is nothing to do with Philistines. These are indulgences, not essentials, and taxpayer funding is inappropriate in any economic climate.

  • Comment number 5.

    I wonder if Francisco was originally paid out of the public purse?
    There are an awful lot of artists clamoring to be paid out of the public purse so they can show how good they are.
    Who decides whose work is good?
    Get it wrong and there may be no future Zurbaráns.
    But there might be somebody even better....

  • Comment number 6.

    The way I look at it there are an awful lot of artists clamouring to be paid out of the public purse so they can spend their time doing their "art" instead of making a living doing a job on which society has already placed a value (as Lowry did for instance) and doing their "art" in their leisure time.

    Who decides whose work is good? People who are interested enough to buy it - just like any other area of life. In any other walk of life (all other things being equal) those whose work is judged to be good obtain and retain jobs and those who simply indulge themselves fail to get jobs or lose them when they show they are incapable of doing them. Why should artists be any different?

  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks for your comments.

    There's always a divide between people who think it is wasteful for public funds to go into art at a time of austerity, and others who think that actually we need art and the pleasure to be gained from it more than ever in tough times.

    Philanthropists have always had a part to play in securing art for our galleries and museums, but how much can we rely on them bridging any funding gap?

    Any more comments?

  • Comment number 8.

    These are what I call real artists:

    Their funding model needs a bit of attention however.


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