Spain’s Golden Age to shine in County Durham

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The investment manager Jonathan Ruffer is due to open a new gallery to house his collection of mainly 17th-century art

Jonathan Ruffer plans to open hid gallery in a 1870 Gothic Revival building, formerly a branch of Backhouse Bank, in the town’s marketplace

A new, privately funded public gallery devoted to the art of Spain’s Golden Age is being set up in the market town of Bishop Auckland, County Durham, in the north-east of England. The space, which is the first major gallery of historic paintings to open in Britain since the 1990s, is funded by the investment manager Jonathan Ruffer. He paid £19m to save Francisco de Zurbarán’s Jacob and his Twelve Sons, 1640-44, and the painting’s home, Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland, when the Church Commissioners sold off the bishop’s palace and its works of art two years ago.

The gallery will be housed in an 1870 Gothic Revival building, formerly a branch of Backhouse Bank, in the town’s marketplace. (The bank closed in 1970 and the premises were most recently used for Italian restaurant.) It will provide spaces on three floors for around 30 paintings in total. The architectural firm Feilden Clegg Bradley is preparing plans, with the conversion costs estimated at around £3m. The gallery is scheduled to open in 2016.

Ruffer says that the gallery will display 17th-century Spanish art, along with Counter-Reformation art from Italy and France. He will be showing works from his own collection, which he has built up over the past ten years. Ruffer’s his latest acquisition for display is from an earlier period: he bought a lifesize wooden sculpture of the Crucifixion, dating from around 1200 and made near the Pyrenees, at Sotheby’s for £278,500 on 10 July. Ruffer now buys with the gallery in mind and recent purchases include two by Jusepe de Ribera, of St Andrew (about 1620) and St Paul the Hermit (1625-30), and one by El Greco’s pupil Luis Tristán, of St Andrew (1620-25).

Discussions are taking place about regular loans to the Bishop Auckland gallery from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

Meanwhile, County Durham is poised to become an international centre for the study of Spanish Golden Age art, because of the art at Bishop Auckland and the Bowes Museum, 15 miles away. The Bowes Museum, at Barnard Castle, has a fine collection of 76 Spanish paintings, reflecting the taste of its founders, John and Joséphine Bowes. It will be holding a special exhibition of Spanish 17th-century paintings (11 October-1 February 2015), including loans from the Prado and London’s National Gallery. The Bowes’s newly restored work by Francisco Pacheco, The Last Communion of St Raymond Nonnatus, 1611, will be the centrepiece. A symposium on Spanish painting, in collaboration with the Prado, is due to be held at Durham University, the Bowes Museum and Auckland Castle on 23-25 October.

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