Meet the Intrepid Collector Behind Auckland Castle's Restoration

By James Reginato
Financier and collector Jonathan Ruffer is using his vast resources and love for the arts to breathe new life into a beloved British town. Works from the Auckland Project’s collection of Spanish Old Master paintings will be on view at Sotheby's New York from 26 January–11 February.

F or almost a millennium, the town of Bishop Auckland, in north-east England’s County Durham, was a centre of power, faith and riches, all crystallised in the splendour of Auckland Castle. The august edifice came to reflect the singular authority accorded to the Bishops of Durham who, following the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, were granted exceptional political and military power to guard England’s northern frontier against Scottish invasion. County Durham’s Prince Bishops long ruled the region as virtual monarchs, later using the wealth provided by the massive coal deposits under their land to ensure that Auckland Castle projected their authority in the grandest possible fashion. Among countless acquisitions over the centuries, in 1756 Bishop Richard Trevor remodelled the Long Dining Room to hang Jacob and His Twelve Sons, an extraordinary cycle of life-size portraits by Spanish master Francisco de Zurbarán that he had just acquired in London.


But then things changed. In 1836, a Bill of Parliament abolished the Prince Bishop status, slowly leading Auckland Castle and its surroundings into deep decline. The 20th century brought additional hardships, leaving this area of England particularly hard hit by the collapse of the coal-mining industry. The castle and its environs are now being restored to their original glory. The man behind this massive undertaking is Jonathan Ruffer. Originally from the neighbouring town of Stokesley, he trained as a stockbroker and barrister before transitioning to private client investment in the City of London in 1980. Through Ruffer Investment Management Limited and later, Ruffer LLP, he made a bundle, and to put it mildly, he’s now giving it away.  “I make it here and recycle it up there,” Ruffer said wryly during a recent chat in his firm’s boardroom in London. “That part of the world,” he says, referring to north-east England, “saw its best days in the 19th century, and it is very much in need of a helping hand. I wanted to create a series of excellences that would bring a spring back into its step.” 

Ruffer has done just that, and the scope of his plan has grown more ambitious every year. In fact, even before the financier bought Auckland Castle, he acquired Bishop Richard Trevor’s much-loved Zurbarán cycle. Around 2010, learning that the Church of England was contemplating selling the pictures to raise funds, and concerned that these “whacking great things,” as he calls them, might be dispersed, Ruffer purchased them. “Then,” he adds, “I thought to buy the castle.” Once that acquisition was completed, in 2012, he began hatching vast plans under the umbrella of The Auckland Project, a Bishop Auckland-focused philanthropic entity he created and chairs. 


Although the Zurbarán paintings are just one part of Ruffer’s ambitious vision for the town, they function as its beating heart. Not only is Ruffer leveraging their universal appeal  as glorious works of art and illustrations of a famous passage of the Old Testament to help raise awareness (and additional funds) for The Auckland Project, but the paintings’ very presence at the castle is also filled with as much meaning for the philanthropist as it was for their previous owner. The series’ iconography comes from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 49, when Jacob on his deathbed calls together his twelve sons – the future founders of the twelve tribes of Israel – and bestows a blessing on each. 

Painted between 1640 and 1644, the works are thought to have been destined for the New World, where the indigenous people were believed to be descendants of the so-called lost tribes of Israel. As it happens, Bishop Trevor, who acquired the series in 1756, saw the need for social, political and religious tolerance between Christians and Jews in the UK: he had previously supported a bill for the emancipation of Jews through the British Parliament. “But Britain was not ready for such a forward-looking idea,” Ruffer explains. So when the bishop bought the pictures at an auction in London, it was his way of saying, “Why are we not accepting this group of people?” Cheekily, the financier adds, “It was also his way of saying, ‘Up yours’ to the Lords.” 


Last year, as the castle closed for a major re-presentation, Ruffer sent the paintings to Texas – first, to Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, where experts in the conservation lab conducted a thorough technical analysis with UV light, X-rays, infrared reflectography and other tools, yielding a wealth of information about the paintings themselves and the techniques Zurbarán used. It became quite clear, for instance, that this master of chiaroscuro incorporated light and dark underpainting in the earliest part of his process, while arranging his compositions. These and other findings were revealed to Dallas audiences in September, when the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University opened Zurbarán: Jacob and His Twelve Sons, Paintings from Auckland Castle, an exhibition of the series running through 7 January. The works will then travel to The Frick Collection in New York, where they will be on view 31 January to 22 April. In May, the pictures will return to their longtime home in Bishop Auckland, ahead of the reopening of Auckland Castle and the launch of other cultural events in the vicinity.

Among them is one of Ruffer’s most recent initiatives, a dedicated Spanish Gallery opening in Bishop Auckland Market Place in 2019.  

In recent months he has worked closely with James Macdonald, head of Sotheby’s private sales for Old Masters and a leading expert on the Spanish school, to assemble a collection of museum-quality paintings to adorn the walls of the Spanish Gallery. A selection of the works will be part of an exhibition at Sotheby’s New York from 26 January to 11 February, and will include a lyrical depiction of The Penitent Magdalene by the rare Spanish Caravaggesque master Juan Bautista Maino. The gallery also plans to partner with institutions around the world, including the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. Ruffer enjoys the contrast in displaying this part of his collection (he also owns paintings by Thomas Gainsborough) in this particular setting. “We have the castle, which is intensely English, with a very Anglican feel,” he notes, “and yet these pictures are theatrical and Spanish – the height of the Baroque.” 


The Spanish Gallery is just one of a host of projects Ruffer has in the works, which include a hotel, restaurant and walled garden, along with two additional exhibition spaces: a Faith Museum, exploring the history of faith in the British Isles, and in celebration of the region’s industrial heritage, the Mining Art Gallery, presenting The Gemini Collection of works by prominent local mining artists. Before these institutions open, Ruffer has made sure to attract visitors to County Durham. For the last two summers, he has supported Kynren: an epic tale of England, the UK’s most spectacular live night show, set against the magnificent backdrop of Auckland Castle. In an 8,000-seat open-air theatre and with a cast and crew of some 1,500 – alongside horses, sheep, oxen, donkeys and geese – the spectacle presents 29 scenes covering 2,000 years of English history with dazzling sets, choreography and special effects.

The presence of such an attraction in the town of Bishop Auckland has already had a tremendous impact on the region at large, as thrill-seeking tourists and history buffs converge to attend the show, patronising the county’s hotels, inns, pubs and other establishments. No wonder Jacob Rothschild, the 4th Baron Rothschild, thinks of Ruffer as a local hero. “With amazing generosity, he acquired the Zurbarán paintings, but he didn’t stop there,” the Baron notes. “He has gone on with imagination and generosity to create a Renaissance in north-east England through a series of brave initiatives.” 

Ever faithful to the region and his vision for its rebirth, Ruffer says he hopes his various projects will “give an experience which will attract many visitors, who will oxygenate the surrounding area, bringing in their wake the wherewithal to change Bishop Auckland economically, morally, socially and spiritually.” By the looks of it, he seems well on his way.

James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair and author of Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats (Rizzoli).

Zurbarán: Jacob and His Twelve Sons, Paintings from Auckland Castle will be exhibited at the Frick Collection in New York from 31 January–22 April 2018. 
Works from The Auckland Project’s collection will be on view at Sotheby’s New York from 26 January–11 February.

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