When the Church Commissioners voted to sell the Zurbarán paintings 15 years ago for an estimated £20m, they were about to deprive Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland of its prized possessions. The Bishop’s Palace  was the home of the Prince Bishops of Durham for more than 900 years and 12 of the 13 paintings were bought by the Bishop of Durham, Richard Trevor in 1756 from a Jewish merchant for £125. Although Bishop Trevor was outbid for the 13th painting, prominent artist Arthur Pond was commissioned to make an exact copy.

It was a calculated move by the bishop, who was against religious intolerance, and who would regularly entertain some of the most powerful figures of European royalty, religion, politics and the military, in the palace’s Long Dining Room, specially designed for the paintings.

“The paintings’ presence at Auckland Castle was, and remains to this day, a profound plea for religious tolerance and social equality as they represent the foundation of the Jewish faith yet they were purchased by one of the most important figures in the Church of England, at a time when Jews and other non-Anglican religious groups in Britain were treated with contempt,” says Auckland Castle’s official interpretation of the paintings.

“The purchase and display of the paintings by Bishop Trevor,” it continues, “was a meaningful and deliberate act. By surrounding his many influential dinner guests with these imposing and exotic works, the bishop made a public appeal for social, political and religious consideration, which still resonates today.”

A decade after the Church Commissioners voted to sell the paintings, their plans took a dramatic twist when investment manager and collector of Spanish old masters Jonathan Ruffer, donated £15 million to save them. A year later the Auckland Castle Trust was established, with Ruffer as chairman, and the paintings, along with the palace, were put under its stewardship. Since then visitors to the castle have increased from 800, in the last year run by the Church Commissioners, to 7,000 in 2013, 10,175 in 2014 and is projected to attract 190,000 by 2020.

Auckland Castle is undergoing a £70m redevelopment

As well as securing the future of Zurbarán’s paintings and the palace, the charitable trust sought to transform the Bishop’s Palace and its adjoining buildings into a prominent attraction for cultural and historical heritage as well as for tourism. They said they wanted to use its historic, cultural and artistic heritage for the purpose of regeneration, progress and education.

Fast forward to the present and the Trust has embarked on a £70m redevelopment of Auckland Castle, welcoming builders on site last month, that it believes will stimulate economic regeneration both in the town and surrounding areas.

According to a recent report by Ernst & Young this redevelopment, combined with others in the town, could attract more than 430,000 visitors per year to Bishop Auckland by 2020 and boost the local economy by up to £20m per annum.

And the redevelopments at Auckland Castle are already seeing improvements to the town with Durham County Council supporting the project by recently realigning Bishop Auckland Market Place road to accommodate a new Welcome Building and create a pedestrian friendly approach.

The new Welcome Building and observation tower at the castle, due for completion next year, have been designed by Niall McLaughlin and stands on the threshold between the town and the castle. It will act as an information and orientation hub for everyone visiting the castle in future and is close to the Trust’s new Mining Art Gallery, due to launch in August 2017.

Welcome Building and observation tower designed by Niall McLaughlin

The project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), will also see the restoration of the 900 year-old Castle, as well as the creation of the Faith Galleries – also designed by Niall McLaughlin – the first venue of its kind in the country to explore the history of faith in the British Isles from pre-history to the modern day.

Conservation specialists Purcell will restore to their former palatial grandeur the Castle’s State entrance, Gentleman’s Hall, State Rooms, private apartments and St Peter’s Chapel, built as a 12th century Banqueting Hall,  consecrated in 1665 and the largest private chapel in Europe.

At the heart of the project will be a new Spanish Art Gallery, which will house a permanent collection of key works from the Spanish Golden Age and other periods, supplemented with loans from the UK’s leading institutions and is due to open in 2019.

The new Spanish Art Gallery

Designed by Stirling Prize-winning architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, the Spanish Gallery, which will sits behind the impressive facades of a former bank and school will provide 10 galleries over three floors, including a dramatic top-lit double-height space, as well as an art history library and café.

Parallel to the redevelopment plans have been negotiations with the Museo del Prado, one of the world’s most significant museums, to form a partnership with the Auckland Castle Trust, which was formalised last month.

The Prado collaboration will see a series of exhibitions developed in partnership between both organisations as well as the loan of permanent works to the central collection of the Spanish Gallery at Auckland Castle. The aim is to create a new world class destination to promote access and understanding of Spanish art to new audiences and generations.

“The fabric which once held Europe and Britain together is now under threat, with no-one knowing quite how events will play out,” said Ruffer in his address to the President of the Prado, José Pedro Perez-Llorca, at a special ceremony last month marking the partnership. “This small act of ‎union between Auckland Castle Trust and the Museo del Prado is a powerful one and will set an international precedent for pan-European collaboration, demonstrating the immense benefits of continuing to pool our international resources, experience and expertise.”

The partnership will see works from the Prado’s priceless collection of artworks including Spanish masterpieces from Velazquez, El Greco and Goya will be exhibited in a new dedicated Spanish Art Gallery.

Both organisations will establish a programme, of a minimum of three years duration, to plan and define proposals for small format exhibitions in Auckland Castle which demonstrate the breadth of the collections of the Prado and which contextualise the collections in Bishop Auckland; also activities linked to the loans, and activities which can be included in academic programmes, exhibitions, research and publications.

7) José Pedro Pérez Llorca, Chairman of the Royal Board of Trustees of the Museo del Prado, Jonathan Ruffer, Chair of the Trustees of Auckland Castle Trust, Miguel Zugaza, Director of the Museo del Prado, and Christopher Ferguson, Curatorial, Conservation and Exhibitions Director at Auckland Castle Trust, meet to sign the collaboration agreement at the Museo del Prado. © Courtesy Auckland Castle Trust / Museo Nacional del Prado

José Pedro Perez-Llorca said this was the first partnership of this scale which the Museo del Prado has ever entered into and believes it will create a new standard for mutually beneficial collaborations that not only impact the joint collections, but will influence the understanding and appreciation for Spanish art and culture worldwide.

“Partnering with Auckland Castle Trust is a formal recognition of our shared ambition to promote the status of Spanish art, a genre which is integral to our extensive collections,” he said. “Our decision to partner with Auckland Castle was a natural fit, as they have one of the most significant collections of Spanish art in the UK and are committed to increasing awareness of Spanish art and culture. Unlike any other project in the UK, they are uniquely dedicated to this vision of developing their rare holdings to reflect the breadth and legacy of Spanish artwork.”

The Prado partnership is not the only major agreement made last month as Auckland Castle Trust also announced a deal with Durham University to establish the Zurbarán Centre for

Spanish and Latin American Art. The £1.6m research institute, is a collaboration between the Castle, University and Santander, which is donating £600,000 to Durham University, its largest ever contribution to an educational institution in the UK.

Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, said County Durham is already home to the UK’s largest collection of Spanish art outside of London. The new Zurbarán Centre for Spanish and Latin American Art will be run by Durham University and is due to open in 2017.  “Not only will it offer our students the chance to study some of the world’s most important artworks, it is also a way of connecting the wider public with our research expertise and is a commitment to the cultural regeneration of Bishop Auckland.”

The partnerships have also been boosted by recent news that Ryanair has announced a new direct route between Newcastle and Madrid, to start in March 2017, which will make it easier for future trips by academics and tourists between the Spanish capital and Bishop Auckland.

The Zurbarán series, painted between 1640 and 1644, is currently at the Kimbell Art Museum undergoing study and will subsequently be exhibited in a series of exhibitions at the Meadows Museum, Dallas and the Frick Collection, New York in 2017.  The series will return to Auckland Castle in May 2018, when the Bishop’s Palace reopens to the public following its refurbishment.

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Pop-up Museum

Auckland Castle closed for redevelopment in September but a pop-up museum entitled, Look Past the Present, curated by a group of community volunteers, will run at Bishop Auckland Town Hall, in partnership with the Auckland Castle Trust, from November 5 to December 24