Auckland Castle and the Auckland Project

photo of Auckland castle under bright blue sky

Auckland Castle, in the town of Bishop Auckland, County Durham, England, served as the principal residence of the prince-bishops of Durham for nearly a thousand years. From the time of the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century, these prelates were granted broad temporal powers in return for their protection of the country’s northern frontier. The castle has been remodeled over time; its present appearance in a Georgian Gothic style dates from the end of the eighteenth century.

In 1756, Richard Trevor (1707–1771), Bishop of Durham, acquired at auction twelve of the thirteen canvases that make up Francisco de Zurbarán’s monumental series Jacob and His Twelve Sons (1640–45). The thirteenth painting, representing Benjamin, passed into the hands of another bidder.

photo of paintings in dining room of a Auckland castleA fervent advocate for religious and political tolerance, Richard Trevor was instrumental in the passage of the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753 that extended rights to foreign-born Jews. A year later, the bill was rescinded in the wake of widespread protest. Trevor’s purchase of the paintings of the Old Testament patriarchs soon after the defeat of the bill and his installation of the works — along with a copy he commissioned of Benjamin’s portrait — in the castle’s Long Dining Room served as a rebuke to the country’s leaders who gathered there. Since Trevor’s time, the towering figures have remained in place, continuing to plead his cause of religious tolerance and inclusion.

In 2010, the Zurbarán series was in danger of being sold off by the Church of England Commission. Two years later, Jonathan Ruffer, a philanthropic financier and native of northeastern England, acquired the paintings to preserve them for the nation, and he purchased the castle as well. The former bishop’s palace is now being transformed into a world-class heritage center as part of The Auckland Project, whose mission is the economic revitalization of the town and region. In addition to the first phase, the renovation of the castle, The Auckland Project will include the creation of a Faith Museum, a Spanish Gallery and Research Center, and a Mining Art Gallery, among other sites of cultural interest. The temporary closing of the castle for renovation has made possible the presentations of the Zurbarán series at the Meadows Museum and The Frick Collection, as well as the technical analysis at the Kimbell Art Museum.

Jacob and the eleven brothers from Auckland Castle are reunited with the original Benjamin, generously lent for both American presentations by Lady Willoughby de Eresby of Grimsthorpe Castle in Bourne, Lincolnshire. Following its display at the Frick, the Auckland set will return to the Long Dining Roomof the castle for its public opening later this year.

Auckland Castle
Bishop Auckland, County Durham, England. Courtesy The Auckland Project

Jacob and His Twelve Sons in the Long Dining Room at Auckland Castle, 2016
Courtesy The Auckland Project. Photographer Colin Davidson