Ahead of the launch of a book celebrating 12 Zurbaran paintings that hang in Auckland Castle, Echo Memories looks at how they came to the North-East.

ONE of the NorthEast's greatest, but perhaps also least known, art treasures is celebrated in a book that will be launched on Sunday.

The 13 larger-than-life paintings, which are worth about £20m, hang in Auckland Castle - the home of the Bishop of Durham - in what is probably Europe's first purpose-built art gallery.

"I first saw them in the Fifties, " says the book's author, retired GP Robert "Bob" McManners. "I remember being left as a small boy in the Long Dining Room with them, and I was frightened by them. They're each 7ft tall, and they leapt out of their frames at me."

Together, the Zurbaran paintings, their story, the gallery and the historic site add up to "one of the great experiences of religious art".

"They carry a message of tolerance which is as powerful today as it was 250 years ago when they first went on show in Bishop Auckland, " says Dr McManners, who spent three years writing the book.

Its publication is timely. In 1997, the Church Commissioners considered selling the paintings. A campaign by the then bishop and the Bishop Auckland Civic Society granted them a five-year reprieve in 2005.

The reprieve is all but up - and with the retirement of the present bishop, the Right Reverend Tom Wright, in December, the commissioners are taking the opportunity to examine the church's requirements.

There are no indications anything will change, but it cannot be taken for granted that everything will stay the same.

"Too often, when the North-East has art treasures that are saved for the nation, they end up going to London: the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Rokeby Venus, the Madonna of the Pinks from Alnwick Castle, " says Dr McManners.

"It would be great if this book would raise local public awareness of what we have got and even create a sense of ownership."

So what have we got?


THE paintings are by Francisco de Zurburan, who was born in 1598 in Spain. In the 1620s, he began producing religious work for monasteries in the Seville area, and in 1634 was appointed Honorary Painter to King Philip IV. He produced the Ten Labours of Hercules for the Spanish king who declared that he was "the king of painters".

But in the 1640s, fashions changed and Zurburan's star waned. Personal hardships crowded in - his first two wives died and five of the six children his third wife bore him also succumbed.

To make ends meet, he painted for the traditional Roman Catholic market in South America. In 1649, agents in Buenos Aires, Argentina, received from him "15 virgin martyrs, 15 kings and noblemen, and 24 saints and patriachs" - a job lot to be hawked around the churches and monasteries.

It didn't work. In 1664, he died in Madrid in poverty and obscurity.

Napoleon restored his reputation 150 years later.

The Frenchman invaded Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War of 1807 to 1814 and plundered artworks from religious institutions. Back in Paris, he decided he rather liked Zurbaran's works and they were shown in the Louvre.


AUCKLAND Castle's collection tells the story of the Blessings of Jacob. On his deathbed, Jacob foresaw the future of his 12 sons, who would be scattered from their homeland and each end up leading one of the 12 tribes of Israel.

The paintings depict the fate of each son, with the 13th showing Jacob leaning on his stick, old and weighed down by the passage of time.

It is an Old Testament story, but has resonance in Judaism and Islam.

Zurbaran painted them in the 1640s, at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, which was rooting out nonChristian practices. Was he being controversial, appealing for tolerance, or was he being commercial and trying to appeal to three sets of prospective buyers?

No one knows what happened to them until 1720.

One story suggests they were captured by pirates on the high seas - when they were in the possession of Sir William Chapman, a director of the South Sea Company.

His bubble famously went pop and the paintings were sold to James Mendez, a Portuguese Jewish merchant in Surrey. In 1756, he auctioned them. The buyer was the Bishop of Durham.


BISHOP Richard Trevor was born in 1707 and died in 1771 of "putrid mortification".

He was enthroned in Durham in 1752, having been Bishop of St David's, in Wales, for eight years.

In 1749, he persuaded his fellow bishops to back the "Jew Bill" - the Jewish Naturalisation Bill that would allow Jewish immigrants to naturalise as British citizens.

The Bill was passed in 1753 but was repealed in 1755 because of its unpopularity.

In 1756, the bishop bought 12 of the 13 Zurbarans for £124. The prices ranged from £2 2s for Reuben, the eldest son, to £21 10s 6d for Issachar and Naphtali.

But Benjamin eluded him.

It was bought by a dealer called Jones Raymond and now hangs in Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire.

Raymond happened to be a friend of the artist Arthur Pond, whom the bishop paid £21 to copy Benjamin. We can only guess he was a victim of some stitch-up between dealer and artist.


BISHOP Trevor, who had never bought a painting before, took his purchases home to Auckland Castle.

The high ground above the rivers Wear and Gaunless had been the site of an ecclesiastical building since Saxon times, and the first Bishop of Durham to live there was probably Eadmund when King Canute gave him some land in 1020.

It has never been a "castle" as such, never a military fortification - in fact the walls around its parkland were built in 1349 to keep the people of Bishop Auckland out because they had the Black Death and the bishop inside did not want them to sneeze on him.

Bishop Trevor did a lot of work that we can still see on his palace. He paid Jeremiah Dixon, of Cockfield, to lay out his deerpark.

He built the distinctive deerhouse on the Gaunless's opposite bank, and he had the gatehouse, complete with its (blue-faced) clock, designed by Sir Thomas Robinson, of Rokeby.

He lengthened the Long Dining Room, adding windows, doors, fireplace and ceiling, and designing it so that it was perfectly proportioned for these 13 super-sized paintings. They have hung there ever since, making their statement.


AS Prince Bishop of Durham, Trevor was the second most influential clergyman in the country. In his castle, he entertained religious, political and military leaders from across the Continent, all of whom would have dined while dwarfed by his demand for multicultural acceptance.

Dr McManners concludes:

"Above all, Bishop Trevor was determined to impress upon us his vision for social, religious, racial and political tolerance, and as we enter the Long Dining Room today, we cannot but fail to be overwhelmed by the impact of the room, with its stunning pictures, forcing us to consider Bishop Trevor's message - a message which is as relevant today as it was 250 years ago."

• ZUBARANS at Auckland Castle, by Robert McManners, is beautifully illustrated and costs £5. It will be available next week from the town hall and WH Smith in Bishop Auckland. The book will be launched on Sunday at a private event in the castle with the bishop, who has financed the publication.

Tickets are on sale at £2 each for a public presentation at the town hall on October 5. (01388-602610).

Auckland Castle is open on Sundays and Mondays only from 2pm to 5pm, although during next month and August it is also open all day Wednesday. See auckland-castle.co.uk