On Architecture

Spanish prize

Jonathan Ruffer’s daring philanthropic experiment hopes to bring a different kind of regeneration to the north-east

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Bishop Auckland, a small market town about ten miles south west of Durham, in the heart of what was until recently mining country, is the site of a fascinating experiment in urban regeneration, financed not by the state but a private individual.

The story began in 2001 when the Church Commissioners decided to sell a wonderful series of paintings of Jacob and his Twelve Sons by Francisco de Zurbarán. They were acquired by Bishop Trevor in 1757 for Auckland Castle, his palace at Bishop Auckland. Bishop Trevor was a worldly figure who wintered at his family estate in Sussex, added a gothick gatehouse to the castle, created a new dining room to contain the Zurbaráns, and is commemorated in the castle’s chapel in a great tomb by Nollekens. The Church Commissioners took the view that these works of art were assets which should be sold for the benefit of the church.

He wanted to bring money to the north east, but also a sense of high culture and ambition

After lengthy negotiations and the offer of the paintings for sale to a billionaire who was encouraged to think they might look good in his dining room, Jonathan Ruffer, a very successful but low key investment manager, who was mildly scandalised that such works of art might be end up unseen, was encouraged to buy them himself.

The Church Commissioners decided to throw in the castle as well, to save on maintenance, provided that the Bishop could keep an office on site. So, Ruffer, who comes from the north east, found himself without particularly intending to as the proud owner of a rundown Episcopal palace and a seriously great, but relatively unknown set of Spanish paintings, which were not by themselves a serious tourist draw. What was he to do?

Unlike many very wealthy people, Ruffer and his wife were stimulated by the challenge of how to bring jobs and investment to a relatively small and depressed urban community which had been hit very hard by the closure of the pits. He wanted to bring money to the north east, but also a sense of high culture and ambition.

Ruffer has renovated the castle, which is now open to the public. Its grounds are also open as a park. They have been used to create a big amphitheatre, where a live performance about the history of Britain is staged during the summer, attracting huge local audiences. In addition, he bought a gothic revival house in the market square to establish a Mining Art Gallery to show the work of local artists who documented life in the mines.

This is a radical experiment, whose philanthropic gifts encompass a belief in the possibility of salvation — for people, things and places

And he commissioned Níall McLaughlin, an Irish architect, who has developed an interesting career as a not quite revivalist, to design a structure which looks like a medieval siege tower to welcome people into the town. McLaughlin is also responsible for a big, monolithic building as one enters the castle grounds. This is going to be a Faith Museum.

This October, Ruffer also opened a new Gallery of Spanish Art which has been created out of a Franco Gothic bank, again in the town square, by the architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios.

It is a spectacularly ambitious and high minded venture, in which the ground floor and two floors above are devoted to seventeenth century Spanish art, mainly drawn from Ruffer’s own private collection, but including a big, much restored painting of Philip IV hunting Wild Boar from the National Gallery, several paintings from the Hispanic Society of America, and some earlier religious sculptures.

The top floor, previously an attic, has been converted by the architect, Charlotte Skene Catling, to display an astonishing assembly of replicas of Spanish works of art which have been digitally reproduced from their original setting by Factum Foundation, the charitable arm of a fabrication company in Madrid.

It is a pure reinvention of the idea of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Cast Courts: if you can’t get to see the works in Spain, you copy them in order to educate the public about the character and qualities of Spanish art. It is not clear what people will make of this juxtaposition of original and reproduction, but the intention with both is intelligently didactic. These are works of art which it would be hard to see even in Spain.

The patronage is remarkable, but the popular verdict is not yet in. I would expect the local community to be more than a touch suspicious of the immensely high minded generosity of a London based international financier.

But the north east has grappled with, for a generation at least, the difficult problem of what to do to regenerate those communities scarred by the closure of the mines from the 1960s to the 1980s. This feels like a project which has been undertaken with a great sense of determination to enhance the educational opportunities of the area, to give access to high culture, but also to self consciously enjoy it too. The Gallery of Spanish Art will shortly be joined by restaurants and a boutique hotel. There will be places to eat in the market square. The palace’s huge kitchen garden is being replanted.

Ruffer’s stewardship of Auckland Castle and its treasures feels a much more committed form of social experiment — and mild social engineering — than merely opening freeports. Much of what is talked about as levelling up by the government seems to consist of a vaguely patronising view of relocating investment to the north. But this is a radical experiment, whose philanthropic gifts encompass a belief in the possibility of salvation — for people, things and places.

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