THE philanthropist behind the £15m deal to save the Zurbarans in Auckland Castle is offering to put more money in to get the project restarted.

A meeting between Jonathan Ruffer and the Church Commissioners, who are trying to sell the paintings, is being brokered by the Bishop of Durham for next week after Mr Ruffer dramatically withdrew his £15m offer last week, blaming the “insurmountable” conditions that the commissioners were placing on the deal.

The Stokesley-born financier told The Northern Echo yesterday: “I’m still absolutely up for it. I will dare to make a suggestion out of my own pocket to square the circle – I am offering to put a lot more money in and I am hoping they will help me.”

The major sticking point seems to be Auckland Castle, which the commissioners value at £1.7m.

Mr Ruffer’s concept is for the castle to be held in trust as a major heritage attraction with the 17th Century Spanish paintings by Francisco de Zurbaran as the centrepiece.

Mr Ruffer said: “If we don’t get satisfactory resolution of the transfer of the castle, the project will be stone dead.”

But today, the Church Times – the leading weekly Anglican magazine – carries a remarkable article by Mr Ruffer in which he says the two leading commissioners, Andreas Whittam Smith and Andrew Brown, are “decent men who have gone wrong” who have “torpedoed” the deals for the Zurbarans and the castle and so have delivered “two slaps in the face for County Durham”.

He says: “Andreas Whittam Smith is by nature a buccaneer: quick to offer the hand of friendship, decisive and brave. He generously accepted an apology for a remark I made which had hurt him.

“Andrew Brown is a very different character, the antithesis of the smutty joke: he is wholesome, serious, and dutiful.

He would make an excellent minor royal.

“Yet these men have managed to torpedo two deals, to the detriment of one of the neediest regions of the UK.”

Mr Ruffer paints a colourful picture of Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, becoming involved in the debate. He writes: “I witnessed last month the Primate of All England pleading for the future of the castle.

The Archbishop pleading; Andreas untouchable, untouched.”

Mr Ruffer told the Echo he was defending his reputation with the article. He said: “I am explaining how someone can give a £15m gift and then go back on it – that seems a dishonourable thing to do and I look cowardly and untrustworthy.”

The Right Reverend Justin Welby, the new Bishop of Durham, said: “Both the Church Commissioners and Mr Ruffer are very committed to trying to make this work and benefit the area. I’m very grateful that they have agreed to meet me next week to discuss issues, and I am hopeful that progress can be made.”

The Church Commissioners yesterday repeated their statement of last week which said: “We remain committed to helping to provide the best possible solution.”

The Church Times quotes a letter to Mr Ruffer from the commissioners’ Parliamentary spokesman, Tony Baldry MP: “We all hope that the matter is not irretrievable, and that we can press on as planned.

“I believe all are committed to achieve the end result that is desired, and I know the Church Commissioners are continuing to work to resolve the outstanding issues. They cannot, however, wave a ‘magic wand’ and bring it all together.”

Helen Goodman, Bishop Auckland MP, said: “Of course there are practical issues to be sorted out, but if all sides want to see the Zurbaran paintings stay in Auckland Castle as a focus for a regeneration project, then I think it is quite possible to move forward constructively.”

Mr Ruffer said he is still committed to returning to the region next year to work with deprivation charities.